4.26.14 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. Reread/audiobook by Jim Dale. 623/870.

I think this is the SECOND TO LAST POST about OotP, how thrilling! Then we can move from the HARRY IS ANGRY! book to the Harry is Enacting Fanfiction…? book, which I hope everyone looks forward to as much as I do. There will be horrifyingly inappropriate Tom Riddle origin fic, and Dumbledore/Grindelwald (implied) fic, and Harry/Draco hurt/no comfort fic, and Slytherin Appreciation, and it will be

AWWWWESOMMMMMME

Okay, here is a starting note–I listened to a bunch of this section with the Jim Dale recordings, and they are just AWFUL. Every single character sort of twists up their sentences in exactly the same way, and his accents are all right but his delivery is feeble. Much worse, every single female character, regardless of personality, or dialogue tags, or age, or mood, talk in the same narrow range of whispy, high, thin voice. I mean I think they all sound like Voldemort is supposed to sound, personally. But when you have Umbridge speaking SLOWLY. AND. LOUDLY. to Hagrid, should it really sound like an ailing powderpuff? NO IT SHOULD SOUND LIKE A TINY STEELY WOMAN TREATING HAGRID LIKE YOU TREAT DEAF FOREIGN-LANGUAGE SPEAKERS WHEN YOU ARE AN APPALLING PERSON. Instead of being appalled at Umbridge I had to spend all my energy being appalled at Jim Dale, whose reading suggests that all women are a bit delicate and whining.

In this part we have several teachers.

1. Hagrid

With Hagrid back, Hermione adds to her ever-full plate planning his lessons–because he is the worst. Hagrid, because he is the worst, ignores her hard work and brings them invisible skeleton ponies. They aren’t actually terribly dangerous, but Draco is legitimately worried before they show up (or do not, according to your personal history with dead bodies), and I think that is incredibly reasonable. Score one for team Malfoy, for the first time in several years. I too would be anxious to have classes, not from my sensible, manageable, nice, safe substitute teacher, but from the guy who got kicked out of high school and literally only likes animals that eat people.The thestrals are interesting in that they privilege one experience of death over all others; it seems as if maybe images of death don’t count and neither does it count if you lose someone but do not see them dead. You know, I sort of doubt that none of these fifteen-year-olds have seen, say, a great-grandparent at their funeral. As ever, JKR really likes to make her characters exceptional in ways that mysteriously erase the probable realities of her secondary characters’ lives. That is to say, she flattens them through not bothering to know enough.

2. Umbridge

Umbridge slowly gains power, like a pink alpaca wool katamari covered in spinning, spitting kittens. She crushes the spirits of the young with government-issued curriculum and EDUCATIONAL DECREES, she harasses the staff, she cuts on children with magic pens. Also she explains to them that half-breeds are evil. PURITY STICKLERS, NEVER A GOOD SIGN, she says some extremely nasty stuff about Remus Lupin, and then my heart starts POUNDING IN RAGE AND I FEEL COMPLETELY PREPARED TO DESTROY HER BUT SHE IS FICTIONAL AND I CANNOT AND I AM SO SO SO SO SO SO MAD

3. Harry

Harry, on the other hand, is a FABULOUS teacher, pretty much right away. I mean it turns out that JKR does know what decent humans and decent teachers are like–maybe it’s just a fluke? but she does know what they are like, because here is Harry leading the DA and being immediately wonderful in the best way. My heart calms and fills with Harry love. I want to know why Harry has to be an auror–I mean I like that he wants to be, because of his parents and his constant life of Voldemort pain, but he would be much better at teaching and maybe he could stop dying all the time. That would be great. Maybe less traumatic, too. He should teach. And he should not marry Hermione after their divorces, J.K. Rowling, DO NOT EVEN SPEAK TO ME.

After the teaching stuff, though, Harry does teen boy stuff and makes Cho feel terrible by not wanting to talk about Dead Cedric (Deadric). It seems like they want to make out and date, but also like Cho needs grief counseling, and since wizards don’t have any healthy emotional processing or care systems at all, she just cries on Harry, who has held Deadric in his arms, while also making out with him. It’s the worst possible solution, I think. Harry is a rage muffin and cannot handle raw grief in the way Cho needs, and Cho can’t think of any other way to balance her liking of Harry and her trauma over Cedric. It’s a mess, a credible mess, and I LOVE IT.

It is pretty wonderfully awkward, and Hermione understands exactly what is going on in Cho’s head and makes it even better. This also makes Hermione better, because she is brilliant in all the ways you really want her to be when you are a young nerd girl-type and she is the coolest, best, most you character in the book. Downside: the whole situation demonstrates an irritating buy-in on the concept of BOYS CANNOT UNDERSTAND THE MYSTERIOUS GIRL AND HER WEIRDO BRAIN, BUT GIRLS HAVE THE WOMAN’S INTUITION HOW FORTUNATE FOR HER, SUCH EMPATHY, VERY FEELS. Not to mention SAD BOY HAS RAGE, SAD GIRL HAS CRIES. Ech. Despite this foolishness, though, I am actually a pretty huge fan of the general piles of awkwardness building up around the Harry/Cho situation. Less interesting: Ron’s possessive jerkitude when he finds out Hermione is penpals with Sexy Sport-Doer Viktor Krum. I don’t think there is a point at which the book version of Hermione and Ron’s romance is attractive or comfortable for me.

Then is the bit of the book that I found hands down the most emotionally gripping the first time I read it.

We all knew someone would die, and I absolutely bought the red herring of Arthur Weasley. I don’t even particularly like him, and didn’t then, either, but Harry’s visceral, first-person dream experience of the attack, and the profound extent to which Arthur is vital to his entire family, to all of these other people that we have learned about and care about, the way in which it would have destroyed them if he died–that mattered. That was absolutely crushing. The truth is that the first time I read OotP I was so relieved that he didn’t die that when Sirius did, I didn’t much care. I know, I’m heartless. I had just already used up my fear, I think.

Anyway, here is Harry, jolting out of an awful dream he knows is real, agonized, terrified, and–well, he keeps telling everyone, RON’S DAD’S BEEN ATTACKED! IT’S SERIOUS! and “serious” is a homonym, and Harry, that is probably not the noise you want to be making right now. Fortunately no one in the universe (the Harry Potter universe) knows about homonyms and no one even for a second thinks that by “serious” Harry might mean “Sirius.” They do believe him, though; Dumbledore gives him more of the cold shoulder, and gathers up the Weasleys. As they are all port-keying to #12, Harry and Dumbledore’s eyes meet for the first time all year, and Harry is immediately filled up with Voldemort’s seething hatred, and suddenly he knows why Dumbledore won’t look at him. And it’s great, because he knows why, now, and it’s not a relief, because it means that it won’t end. It means the most trusted adult in his life is inaccessible and there is no way of knowing how long it will be that way.

In case anyone has read this far feeling that maybe I hate Harry Potter, let me put a note here that there are some things about it that I love. For example: THIS PART IS REALLY GOOD. There is so much tension and such an excellent balance of motives and personal emotions–she understands more than one set of feelings at once, and it works so well. You don’t always feel the characters this clearly, but here you do, and it works.

I’m afraid at #12 we get back to horrible things again–I mean the WORST things, because I mean Kreacher. His apparel is specifically referred to as a “loincloth” in this chapter, and I just want to point out that loincloths are clothes. Loincloths. Are. Clothes. So when you give someone a name that boils down to “worse than an animal” and then you tell me that a piece of clothing that many people–frequently people in ethnic groups that have been enslaved by white people–wore and still wear is not sufficiently human to merit freedom, I suspect you are being unconsciously but incredibly racist.

There’s a good bit where Sirius is being pushed toward his inevitable rash, terrible death by the distraught twins calling him a coward, but then JKR loses control a bit. I mean, if you have ever had a friend in the hospital who was almost dead an hour or so before, you have probably not formed a jolly troop, all worries banished, and pranced joyfully into the hospital to see them with nary a care. THE WEASLEYS DO! Only Harry is upset and that is because he is afraid of turning into a snake. When they get to Arthur, who is in the bite unit of this terribly organized hospital, he is telling a patient with a werewolf bite all about how he knows a guy with AIDS, I mean, a guy who is a werewolf and he really makes a pretty okay life of it–

All the adults turn very stupid at this point because they don’t want the kids to talk about Voldemort and his secret weapon, but as soon as they kick the kids out, they–still in a room with several other patients–all start talking about Order stuff themselves. Obviously this makes it easier for the kids to overhear, but RATIONALLY SPEAKING, IT ALSO MAKES IT EASIER FOR EVERYONE ELSE TO HEAR.

The kids hear just enough that Harry feels like a guilty monster monster snake who no one trusts and everything is wrong for, and they go back to Hogwarts, and a portrait tells Harry he should just be grateful to Dumbledore because obeying him hasn’t literally killed Harry so what is he complaining about, and Harry YELLS AND HAS VOLDEMORT DREAMS AND HATES HIMSELF AND HATES EVERYONE AND THEN GINNY POINTS OUT that she was possessed by Voldemort and Harry shuts up. This is also a really good moment. OotP has these in a higher proportion than perhaps all of the previous books.

However–it also has wizards not knowing about the internet, or stitches (and the attendant notion that muggles are stupid and dangerous, which, gosh, must be rich and fun coming from every side when you are muggleborn or half-blood). It also has terrible ideas about mental illness. It also has this incredibly exploitative scene where Gilderoy Lockheart’s illness is played for laughs (he’s a jerk, illness isn’t a joke) and then we’re supposed to go straight from laughing at him to being HORRIFIED for Neville that his parents are crazy helpless children. I mean, this whole scene is a shock reveal and has no other purpose–Lockheart is a lure that literally guides them to Neville’s family. She just did this to make the main characters know something they didn’t need to know, so we could see the UGLY TRUTH–how terrible it is to be crazy. Or rather, how terrible it is for their families–they don’t get much of a say, or continued personhood after their ~brave sacrifice~. They don’t even get private rooms, it’s just so gross, I feel so gross.

[tw rape language] Which is a good setup feeling for occlumency lessons with Snape, which is basically the time when Dumbledore authorizes a petty sadistic teacher to violate the mind of his most hated student over and over. And that is pretty much just a setup for Harry to find out the ugly truth that his dad was a jerk–Lockheart, pt.2. Learning occlumency is a great idea, don’t get me wrong, but holy crap, the payoff is low for making Snape the teacher, unless you are really, really into grimdark Snarry fic. (I don’t know. Maybe you are. A lot of people were. HARRY POTTER FANDOM WAS INTO EVERYTHING.) Anyway Harry learns nothing for quite a while, Snape is a baby boomer who tells Harry he is NOT SPECIAL OR IMPORTANT, this plot is terrible.

Balancing this out is VALENTINE’S WITH CHO, which is EVEN WORSE THAN THE CRYING MAKEOUTS. There are kissing couples and maybe Hermione will show up? And Cho wants to talk about Cedric and there is a cherub singing at them????? AND EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE AND CHO LEAVES and it is funny and agonizing and perfect, why isn’t the whole series like this, this is a teenage nightmare, this is everything that is beautiful.

Harry is bad at love and is delightfully VIBRATING WITH JEALOUSY THAT RON IS PLAYING QUIDDITCH. The ever-resourceful Hermione blackmails Rita Skeeter into writing about Harry for the Quibbler, and Harry becomes a school hero again; Umbridge makes a rookie mistake by banning the Quibbler, when as everyone knows, BANNED BOOKS ARE THE BEST BOOKS. Trelawney gets fired! Dumbledore shows up like unto a benevolent god, but his general absence makes the divine appearance ring a little hollow, like a chocolate Easter bunny. Trelawney is replaced by centaur Firenze, which gives everyone an opportunity to be terrible at centaurs. JKR calls them half-man, half-horse–I would have thought they were all centaur, personally–and Hermione sees them as animals, and Dean asks if Hagrid bred. Their. Teacher.

Incredible drama arrives as Umbridge breaks up the DA, Harry is caught, the Minister of Magic is increasingly pathetic, and Dumbledore gives himself the boot and FLIES AWAY ON HIS PHOENIX JUST AS MERLIN ROCKETS OFF IN A BLAST OF FIRE IN DISNEY’S THE SWORD IN THE STONE!!!!!!!!! this is the worst post this is the worst post THIS BOOK IS ALMOST DONE ! ! !

Advertisements

4.23.14 Reflections on the Magic of Writing

Reflections on the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones. Fresh read/new book: 354/354.

Photo on 2014-04-22 at 18.16 #2

I wrote all over this book because I was reading it like a LEARNING BOOK and it is so much easier to LEARN when you are scribbling on things. (Not library books, don’t worry, I’m not completely heinous.) This set of essays and talks, published posthumously, is all about Diana Wynne Jones’s approaches to, influences in, and beliefs about writing. There’s a fair amount of repetition, which could be a bit wearing, except really I think what it does is bring forward the things that mattered most in her mind to talk about, in terms of her writing and in some cases her life (never entirely) outside writing.

I’d warn anyone reading it that her childhood, in World War II England under the dubious care of largely absent parents, was punctuated by upheaval and neglect, and that most of her childhood recollections are unnerving, to say the least.

Here are some key points, however, about writing books.

1. Hilarity and horribleness go hand in hand. If you’re writing about something terrible happening, find a way to make it funny. Frequently, terrible things are funny, in the moment, in a terrible kind of way. You can do this when you write.

2. You must know more than you write down and you must never try to fit it all in. The world you are writing about should always feel full but should never feel stuffed. This is very obviously something she carried out in any of her books; there are always these neat references to things that never get taken out of the drawer and unwrapped and explained to you; it’s obvious from how she refers to it that it’s substantial, and you as a visitor to the world had better just decide to keep up.

3. Books that are designed to teach are bad books. You can learn from a well-made story but stories that are made to the purpose of inculcating virtue are usually dreadful. Sentimentally virtuous books are the worst, and apparently they ended up on a childhood shelf that she and her sisters called the Goddy Books and never read twice. That said, she does seem to have liked Pilgrim’s Progress, which may escape the Goddy Book fate by being interestingly heroic as well as virtuously educational.

4. Do not overwrite your language. Tolkien did not write in the labored high prose of modern fantasy novels and heavy written dialect is a cumbersome detraction that can be just as well achieved by cadence as spelling. I’ll add here that dialect is usually classist, racist, or both, so there’s another good reason to avoid it. In general she argues there’s frequently nothing to be gained in tormenting your prose.

5. Publishing has fads. They will probably hate things you would like to write. It’s a struggle. You will not know why the fads are what they are, but they will probably try to thwart you at every turn. She calls them RULES, and they constantly change; and in children’s books particularly, she says, the rules are so arbitrary because they usually have nothing to do with what children are capable of reading or what they want to read.

6. Mythology is perfect material. Mythology is so bare-bones that only the recognizable, near-universal core is left by the time we see it as something called myth, and you can layer that into a story until it is hardly visible and it will still help to power you. It does not have to be obvious to be strengthening.

7. Boredom is deadly. If you are bored with what you are writing, your writing will die. Follow the story, and do not suffocate it in a plan you’ve made ahead of time. Don’t go on writing something the way you’re writing it, if it isn’t working for you.

8. Writing is messy. Sometimes story ideas have to sit for years. Sometimes they get half written and fade out. Sometimes you have to throw the whole thing away. Sometimes you keep drawers and drawers of unfinished projects. Sometimes all you know is the beginning, the end, and a bit in the middle, and you sit down and let the story tell you where it’s going, and it goes. She managed to publish over forty books in all the messiness, so I find that very comforting.

9. The real world is too strange for fiction. If you write down the strict truth and put it in a story, sometimes no one will believe it can happen, even in make-believe. You have to tone it down or wrap it up for people to believe you, even when you’re telling your own history.

10. Take a “What if?” and follow it all the way. You can get a lot of story out of a single question if you just start chasing down the answer and don’t let up until you’ve got the whole thing in your hands. You can take any little moment, in fact, and it grows into something wild and funny and surprising, because you tried answering in the fullest, most interesting way, instead of making a little solemn bullet point and connecting the line from one of those bullet points to the next without any chaotic, adventurous crescendos.

11. The fantastical, wondrous parts are important. Fantasy matters because it lets us say things in a particularly truthful way, even if the “facts” of the story sound less plausible than the “facts” of some other kinds of novels. It lets us escape ugliness in our presents and pasts by finding places that understand us, and giving us heroes who survive their uglinesses. And they show us beauty and imagination and a complete refusal to be stomped down into what we’re told is Reality. Numerous times, she talks about the dreamy, out of place chapter of The Wind in the Willows called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” This chapter was skipped over by their mother when the book was read to them as children, because it was fanciful; but she read it eventually on her own, and it mattered so profoundly that it comes up seven times in the course of this book. Fantasy is important.

I have most of her books and I adore them, but I wouldn’t say I experienced many rushing moments of recognition in the course of reading this one. But it really didn’t matter; what she did worked, and I love the books she made with her way of thinking, and you can sometimes learn a lot more from someone whose brain puts things together in a completely different way.

4.20.14 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling.
Reread: 440/870.

Photo on 2014-04-20 at 21.30 #2

OH, I SEE IT HAS BEEN AWHILE. New job! The notes I left on this section like a week and a half ago are terrible. I’ll do what I can, here.

So–here come the as yet unnamed DUMBLEDORE’S ARMY!!!! They go to the squalid pub of Dumbledore’s unspeakable brother, Aberforth Goatliker. Just a real rat’s nest of wizard deviance, that Dumbledore family. At this pub many people are criminals and they serve FIREWHISKY to the underage wizards, which is very exciting.

???? question about the firewhisky ??????????? booze ahead

It seems like maybe firewhisky is the only powerfully alcoholic beverage wizards know about. This is very strange. Surely the benefit of wizard pubs is that you get additional, magical booze–not that all other boooze in the universe is extinguished from your world, and at the broadest expanses of your self-indulging dreams, you conceive only of…Butterbeer and Firewhisky? The twins Weasley have never snuck into the dorm with bottles of tequila or cheap wine? Wizard kind is NOT EVEN SURE WHAT THAT WINE STUFF IS ALL ABOUT? That just does not seem true.

Then again, I guess in England you can only go to ONE WIZARD SCHOOL and live in ONE WIZARD TOWN or work at ONE WIZARD OFFICE, so I suppose that ONE WIZARD HARD LIQUOR is appropriate for their unnecessarily withholding and yet morally superior wizard lifestyle. The only thing you can imagine, for comfort, is that Britain is just really backwards, and everyone else is uncomfortable to visit. You’ll note they left Britain to deal with Voldemort on their onesies.

So in this DA as will be meeting, surrounded by criminals, we find the first tender buds of revolution. This is very exciting and I feel strongly about young revolutionary souls. More importantly, Ron hates Michael Corner and wishes him not to date Ron’s sister. Ginny should date Harry instead, due to this being the closest Ron will get to dating Harry himself. Sadly for Ron and his mental image of Ginny, but not for Michael Corner,  Harry is presently BUBBLING OVER for CHO. Keep it together, Harry. You have many a chest-monster to go.

The young revolutionaries make half a pact. The Ministry for Magic tightens its grip and THINGS GET REAL. Just as the soon-to-be-DA starts up, Educational Decree #24 bans clubs. Hermione, having arranged this whole thing, becomes a little anxious about it, but they get going, and learn that Harry is basically a PERFECT MOTIVATIONAL UNDERDOG who will lead them all!

(NOTE: he is definitely working his way up to Full Wizard Jesus by now, early ministry edition. Since it is Easter I give you the gift of analyzing wildly with regard to Umbridge’s detention: Harry, aware of the consequences and choosing to endure them, speaks up against her, and is punished with a less frightful version of one of the stigmata. He even gets to carry his own cross, in the form of the quill. HOW’S THAT for some classic Christlike foreshadowing?)

Then there’s some quidditch, Ron is bad at quidditch, Harry and the twins are banned from quidditch, dark days in the pitch of quiddith here at Hogwarts. Okay my notes are truly awful here, but two points:

1) Harry’s scar hurts because of Voldemort’s feelings. Harry Potter is Voldemort’s mood ring. I find this thought incredibly satisfying. WHO CARES why, it’s GREAT.

2) [tw rape culture] I’m VERY sad I lost the page for this, but essentially the Gryffindor girls’ dorm has an alarm that prevents boys going up the stairs, but the boys’ dorm doesn’t. A rape alarm, obviously–what else would it be? Probably both sides should have an alarm, for modesty’s sake. But what happens in the text is Hermione telling us that the alarm is sexist against boys because they’re no more unreliable (read: no more likely to rape their classmates) than girls. WELL, THAT IS NOT TRUE. It is, however, the kind of argument people use to shut down rape survivors and people who want to talk about the most frightening daily realities of living as someone who is perceived as female. It’s the “not all men are like that” argument, basically, and it doesn’t even need to be in the book. JKR had to go out of her way to fit it in!

We don’t find out about this alarm, improbably, until our protagonists’ fifth year. That makes no sense, of course, and it doesn’t make sense for it to appear now, either. All that happens is that JKR chooses to send Ron up the stairs in a fit of unthinking excitement–and then, once Hermione’s dreadful commentary has been triggered, she brings him down again. The episode is nothing but an opportunity for Hermione to convey JKR’s clumsy rape apologism. And, like the house elf mess, this extraneous aside makes JKR’s most consciously progressive character (and brightest, and most passionate) into a mouthpiece and a jerk.

You know what is really a mess, though? Giants. Giants are like House Elves except…giant. Grotesque, subhuman, at the mercy of wizardkind, and basically just not a concept that should have emerged from the realm of pure irresponsible fancy into the world of Weighty Consideration. They’re basically violent beasts and it seems really unlikely that half-giant, half-human people could ever be the result of consensual sex. ALSO, AS MENTIONED PREVIOUSLY, THERE ARE NOT A LOT OF GIANT/HUMAN SEXUAL POSSIBILITIES THAT ARE NOT HORRIFYING AND FATAL.

Grawp is now here at Hogwarts. Grawp is Hagrid’s full-giant half-brother and he is horrible. Hagrid has him illegally, like all of his pets. His brother is literally serving this book’s role of “Hagrid’s disgusting monster pet.” That is basically all you need to know about how horrible the idea of giants is as explored by J.K. Rowling.

4.14.14 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. Reread: 329/870.

HOGWARTS TIME. Hogwarts Time starts of sad and really uncomfortable as against all advisement, sad dog Sirius pants alongside to see Harry off at the station this is co uncomfortable SO UNCOMFORTABLE AND WORRYING. Good thing: multiple people have already called Sirius out on being clingy and trying to replace James with his wounded child. Bad thing: NO ONE HAS DONE ANYTHING FOR SIRIUS. “People go MAD in Azkaban! Sirius isn’t gibbering so I’m sure that’s all right.” I mean, not that it would matter if they did do something, the best you get in the wizarding world is locked up in St. Mungo’s, WHO, I THINK, IS NOT EVEN A REAL SAINT.

On the train they meet someone else that everyone calls crazy and proceeds to never do anything useful for: the perfect Luna Lovegood! She would not need or want their help anyway. Good thing all they do is talk on about how she is a harmless weirdo. Am I supposed to LIKE Ginny et. al. when they say these things? Luna Lovegood, only clear-headed person in the world, thinks Hagrid is bad at teaching and Ron was mean to Padma, and she can see undead horses. Romanticizing is another side to the coin of pathologizing, Rowling, but I will let it go long enough to LIKE LUNA SO MUCH.

NEVILLE QUESTION:Why does his toad just not have a cage already he has had him for like five years and loses him all. the time. JUST. BUY. A. CAGE.

At Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat gives a dire warning (which people attend to, somewhat, even though it’s really terrible at its actual job of sorting). They all immediately forget the warning as Umbridge, new and worst DADA instructor (worst? worst person, perhaps not worst teacher.) gives an incredibly boring speech that boils down to “here is my plan to take over Hogwarts and crush the rebellion.” Good thing she is a high-voiced, conventionally unnattractive woman, or someone might have noticed! (Hermione noticed because she’s not a fool.)

Meanwhile, two charming developments: Ron becomes Harry Potter’s Xander Harris! This is not a compliment. This means he is a selfish, occasionally quipping sidekick whose self-denigration is the thin veneer over his resentment at the world at large for not giving him every on of his desires. Ron, unlike Xander, does not assault Hermione (Buffy) under the guise of a Magic Made Me Do It, but he still likes taking offense at not being allowed to be an invasive jerk (“I’m not allowed to ask a simple question?” Ron wonders, much as rude privileged people have asked throughout history). Not much later he accuses Cho Chang of being “not a real fan” on the speculation that she might have started liking a quidditch team only after they stopped completely sucking. Okay, buddy, see you at the con.

Second charming development: everyone in the series has picked up a new verbal habit of referring to women they don’t like very much as “That [name here] Woman.” It’s like they’re pointing out a brown stain on their rug. It’s EVERY CHARACTER. They do not do it to men. I think maybe it is not about characters growing up and using grownup language as J.K. Rowling maybe does not like women that much. MAYBE.

Speaking of hateful women, in a blatant parallel to life, Umbridge is bringing government regulated curriculum to DADA and not teaching them to use defensive spells, just to pass the exam. Hermione is putting her hand in the air and demanding to know why and like, the early whispers of revolt are electrifying the air and, MY HEART CANNOT EVEN BEAT FOR THE PARALYZING POWER OF MY PRIDE IN HERMIONE GRANGER. Then Umbridge calls Lupin a dangerous half-breed and the emotion is so intense I HAVE TO PUT DOWN MY BOOK TO BREATHE A LITTLE.

Harry’s life this year is a bit difficult! A bunch of people hate him for being a crazy liar and maybe killing Cedric? Who knows. And McGonagall is on his side but can’t help him because ministry!!!! And Dumbledore won’t be near him at all, and Sirius is continually risking terrible death. Oh, and his squeaky pink evil-femme teacher Umbridge, Dolores, is making him cut into his hand every night for weeks.

UM. THE SELF-HARM DETENTION IS EVEN WORSE THAN I REMEMBERED. IT IS REALLY HORRIFIC. And no one ever reacts to it as strongly as they should. WHY? Also I am impressed that Rowling manages to make it so upsetting in a series where she playfully writes Argus Filtch, Man Who Would Hang Up And Torture Students And Has Recently Done So. Nice about-face.

So Dolores Umbridge (THAT UMBRIDGE WOMAN) is inspectin all the classes and she keeps cuttin Harry up, and Hermione thinks of a GENIUS SECRET STUDY GROUP UNDERGROUND so they can defend themselves against Real Evil, such as Umbridge. Harry thinks that’s brilliant, and then he has a panic attack.

What a great school year so far.

4.10.14 The White Deer

The White Deer by James Thurber. First read/readaloud: 115/115.

image

Finishing up the trio of James Thurber children’s books is The White Deer. James Thurber gets posthumous flack for being A Sexist, which gets some credence in The Wonderful O, but it goes in to superdrive in this book.

If you want to read a book where the term “true deer” is used with charming frequency and a bunch of princes go on ridiculous quests that totally subvert your expectations, HURRAH! HERE IT IS! But only if you also like ladies to not have memory or agency and it to be really unclear if they are animals or not and for their entire life courses to be determined by the whimmy emotions of some incompetent and generally unlikable dudes. Oh, and for the actual villains to be a witch and her lady helper.

Here is the story. Once upon a time a king married a hot lady who was deer and then was a hot lady, and then because the king was a jerk, was a deer again forever. Before she became a permanent deer, the king’s hot wife made this ungrateful jerkface three kids, all of whom are pointless additions to the earth. This king and his three sons (numbering 2 rangers and 1 bard, and you think the bard will be good news, but he’s only marginally better) go hunting in the enchanted wood, which is forbidden. They chase a hardcore deer and it turns into a hot lady. FAMILIAR?

What goes down: it transpires that the lady who may or may not be a deer doesn’t remember anything, like her name, so maybe she is a princess or maybe she is a TRUE DEER. Yelling over the advice of his recorder, his dwarf, his clockmaker, and his physician, the king declares her a princess and has her set the princes tasks to win her hand. The princes go do the tasks, and the king yells a lot about whether she is DEER or PRINCESS.

They decide she is probably a deer, but the bard wins her hand because he is the only prince who was willing to marry a potential deer.

S P O I L E R

In fact, she is a princess, not a deer! And you think she’ll get to speak for herself, now that she remembers stuff, but in fact, the torch of ever getting a word in edgewise passes to the dwarf, who turns out to be her hot prince brother! He explains her entire story while she sits prettily by, and then they all ride off to the prince and princess’s distant kingdom, and the deer princess gets hitched to the bard prince. Meanwhile, the evil witch which bewitched the prince and princess gets zapped by lightning and dies. THE END.

My Rating: U- / UNSATISFACTORY.

E N D S P O I L E R

Here are some things that could have happened instead:

  • Everyone calms down about whether or not she is a deer because their mom was a deer, so it’s a little late to be concerned, honestly.
  • Bard Prince passes the F/M/K test for If She Is A Deer, but the final enchantment is that she is actually a prince, WHAAAAAAAT? Bard Prince passes that test, too! The gay Prince Kings have a fabulous wedding and adopt enchanted deer babies as their heirs.
  • The Deer Princess becomes king of her own kingdom and the bard marries her brother, renouncing all thrones in favor of a musical career.
  • The enchanted deer princess and the enchanted dwarf prince are both actually deer. Their entire family are deer. Their entire kingdom is deer. As soon as the Bard Prince kisses the princess, every single person except his two brothers and his dad turn into deer. W H A T W I L L Y O U H U N T N O W? they murmur in unison. The princes and their dad begin to run. T O O L A T E N O W murmur hundreds of deer, stirring slowly into action.  H O W S W I F T I S M A N ? T O O  L A  T E N  O  W  W W   W    W
  • Alternately everyone is a deer but the Bard Prince is pleasantly surprised by this.
  • Protestors in the kingdom (which seems to have NO subjects, but if they did exist) rally around the castle with signs that say things like, “DEER MARRIAGE? WHAT IS NEXT, MARRYING THE LETTER O?”

Those would be some possible endings, and all of them would be pretty good.

4.8.14 The View from Saturday

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. Reread: 163/163.

image

I read this book about four times as a kid not because it was my favorite book but because I really did not get it. I thought I would read it again now and see if I got it. I don’t think I do.

The View from Saturday is a slightly mystical (not at all magical or fantastical), carefully portioned, formally precise novel. It got the Newbery Medal so I think either a bunch of other people did understand it, or they didn’t, and they were pretty sure they should have, and this impressed them, so they gave it an award. I don’t begrudge E.L. Konigsburg and her odd books awards, because there is something meticulous and elsewhere unspoken in her writing. That said, I’m not sure I ever completely understand her books.

In The View from Saturday, a sixth-grade team of four is making an unprecedented state-level showing at the Academic Bowl. The four children have been chosen by their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, who is returning to teaching after a ten-year absence following a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Mrs. Olinski is of the “things are not as they were, and children have changed for the worse” school. She takes comfort in very small prescriptions (for example, correcting a fellow teacher to say hanged rather than hung). There’s sort of a distant angelic rightness about her attitudes (of all kinds) in the book. I don’t think I agree with her attitude, though I may sympathize with it—but I find it so hard to get at the characters that I’m not sure how strongly I disagree or sympathize.

Independently of Mrs. Olinski’s choice, each of the four children are somehow connected: Noah, staying with his grandparents in their retirement village, serves as an impromptu Best Man in a retirement village wedding, after his wagon trips up the original Best Man and breaks his leg. That Best Man is Nadia’s father. Nadia’s grandfather has just married Ethan’s grandmother. And Ethan rides the bus with Julian Singh, who brings them all together for afternoon tea at his father’s new B&B, at which point they all become a cohesive unit of perfectly matched genius children.

All of these connections are odd because they’re too close to really explain all four of the children winding up in the same classroom or being picked by Mrs. Olinski for her academic-bowl-team-without-trial. There’s this little suggestion that somehow they planned to be picked, but there’s no indication of how that worked except for the virtuous powers of their four interconnected, precocious minds.

I’m not convinced by the end that I’m convinced by their connections or their coincidences or their outcomes. The characters themselves are convinced, and forge through everyone and everything else by the power of their rightness, but I’m not convinced. Maybe the problem is that their form of outcast is the holy pedantic, and while I have certainly been that, I’m not wholly agreeable to the idea.

The whole book for me is a tricky balance. I recognize those smart kids, and the need for them to believe they are right and worth something. I recognize that the outcast sometimes has to recast theirself as something truly glorious just to get through the disdain and dislike of people. The idea of a perfectly synchronized unit of like-minded people is heady, and attractive, and delicious.

But I don’t think I believe any of what happens (except for the part where they rescue sea turtle eggs), and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to. I didn’t see them as real sixth graders when I was in the sixth grade and I don’t know, and I don’t know if this is a wistfulness exercise by Konigsburg or a fable or a book written straight that I just cannot relate to.

Here are the takeaways I know I am meant to have: that in community there is power, that kindness is crucial, and that taking all things in parts and making all steps a part of you instead of an impediment to the real stuff is the best thing you can do for yourself. And those are actually great lessons. Which is maybe why my feelings about this book are complicated.

So it’s left me with the same uncertain mind about it as it always has, and in five or ten years I’ll have to read it again and see what if anything has changed.