Tag Archives: j.k. rowling

The Casual Vacancy Book Reaction

This is a reaction to J. K. Rowling’s newest book, The Casual Vacancy.  As there is a substantial amount of language used in the book that is considered offensive, you should be warned that I may include them in some of it in quotes.  This is also a *SPOILER*-y post regarding the plot of The Casual Vacancy.

A friend, who knew I was planning to read the book right away and wouldn’t get a chance to do so herself, asked me to text her a one-word review when I was finished reading The Casual Vacancy.  I thought of several options while I was reading, like “raw,” “depressing,” “honest,” “heartbreaking,” or “grim.”  In the end, I settled on “condemning,” because it was overall a very bleak and realistic portrayal of our modern society, populated by repeatedly selfish and cruel humans, whose self-absorption, stereotyping and prejudice ultimately did nothing to prevent fatal tragedies.  Barry Fairbrother seemed to have been one of the only decent people in the town, and he died in the first chapter.  There was very little hope that the miserable existences described in such painfully vivid detail would ever be improved.  Perhaps that is a more realistic outcome–that change comes slowly to society, that maybe only one or two people in the whole situation are motivated to try to effect change–but the fact that this is really an accurate presentation the current state of affairs, that most of us won’t be bothered to do anything about the plights of our neighbors or the less fortunate, should make the reader feel ashamed.

Pervasive self-centerdness was definitely one of the themes I felt this story hammer home, partly through the fact that many characters enjoyed others’ misfortune with schadenfreude-ic glee, but when the situation was reversed felt that people should pity them, without a trace of irony.  There was also the climax, when three people saw a small child all alone and did not concern themselves over his well-being in  the slightest.  It seemed that this quote, describing Andrew’s violent and corrupt father, would be  appropriate for many other characters as well:

Simon had the child’s belief that the rest of the world exists as staging for their personal drama; that destiny hung over him, casting clues and signs in his path, and he could not help feeling that he had been vouchsafed a sign, a celestial wink.

Tessa notices and is frustrated by this unconscious belief that oneself is the most important person in the universe, shared by her son Fats and many of the students at the school where she  works:

She wanted to scream, You must accept the reality of other people.  You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is.  You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.

Later, Tessa is again frustrated by a person not bothering to think of others as he does himself:

Tessa fought down an impulse to snap.  Colin had a habit of making sweeping judgments based on first impressions, on single actions.  He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own.

Although she doesn’t always act accordingly, Parminder reminds herself of a Sikh teaching at several points:

The light of God shone from every soul.

I hope I was meant to generalize those quotes and see them as applicable to both the entire cast of this book and much of its audience, but then I’m apparently not very good at discerning what this author intends.  In a interview promoting the book, Rowling gave a much different perspective on her work than I came way with:

Themes of the book include drug addiction, racism, rape, alleged paedophilia…. It’s clear that this is a very different kind of book.

“It’s a cheery book! Clearly a comedy, it’s a good beach read. But yes it is different, I genuinely think even though it sits a little oddly with that list of themes, that this is a humorous book. Some of the humour may be rather dark in places but yes its life in a small town [and] everything that entails.” [source]

I can’t find a video of this interview, only the written transcript, so I don’t know whether her inflection indicated that she was joking or not.  But I’m a little saddened if she really thinks this is primarily a comedy.  There are certainly several snarky descriptions and a couple parts that made me laugh out loud, but my mind refuses to process reading depictions of self-harm, rape, drug addiction, child neglect, and domestic abuse as “comedy.”  I cried much more than I laughed.  However, in the same interview, Rowling also intimated that readers should cry:

The book has quite a bleak and shocking climax , what sort of reaction do you hope it gets?

I don’t think I would have much to say to anyone who didn’t at least tear up a bit. I don’t think I would have warm feeling toward someone who didn’t. But it’s a vile thing to say to a reader, did you cry or are you some sort of sub-human? [source]

After so many years confined to the magical and comparatively safe and happy land of Harry Potter, perhaps it was a relief for Rowling to write something so gritty and real, so contemporary and ugly.  People died in Harry Potter, but not by suicide.  Draco may have been a bully, but he didn’t relentlessly post cruel Facebook messages to Hermione’s wall and make her want to cut herself.  The Dursley’s mistreated Harry, but they didn’t physically beat him.  I’ve got nothing against harsh depictions of reality in stories, but I would have preferred more hope for a change for the better in this one, (and I’m not convinced we really needed those explicit descriptions of the porn that Andrew and Fats viewed.)  Much of this book seemed to be simply noting, in very well-crafted style, “isn’t it funny how absolutely terrible people can be?”

I wasn’t really bothered by most of the “foul” language, since it fit with how those characters would realistically speak or think.  This was even addressed explicitly in the book:

Krystal thought she was being funny.  She used “fucking” interchangeably with “very,” and seemed to see no difference between them.

The important thing about analyzing any language use is the context; Krystal uses those words indiscriminately with everyone, barely realizing they’re considered taboo, while Andrew and Fats sometimes use offensive words together to mark the situation as casual, intimate, and without adult supervision.  What struck me most about the language in this book was actually the amount of big words, (like I had to look up a few even though I consider myself to posses an extensive vocabulary), and the prevalence of Britishisms.  I marked all of the instances of British slang that I noticed, and if there is an interest I could write up a separate post outlining and explaining them to an American audienceClick here to read my post on the British slang in this book.

If you’re familiar with the brilliant parallels in the structure of the Harry Potter books, which have been dissected and discussed by others at length, you might not be surprised that Rowling’s new book also features 7 sections with a similar theme running through the end of each one.  I can’t quite figure out how section 4 features in as the middle, and I haven’t yet noticed whether there are individual parallels to be made within each section, but what I have noticed is a systematic recurrence of sex and death.

In the last segment of Part I, Fats and Andrew get high and ruminate on the meaning of life together.

“Yeah,” said Fats.  “Fucking and dying.  That’s it, innit?  Fucking and dying.  That’s life.”

“Trying to get a fuck and trying not to die.”

“Or trying to die,” said Fats.  “Some people.  Risking it.”

“Yeah.  Risking it.”

There was more silence, and their hiding place was cool and hazy.

“And music,” said Andrew quietly, watching the blue smoke hanging beneath the dark rock.

“Yeah,” said Fats, in the distance.  “And music.”

The river rushed on past the Cubby Hole.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this conversation is almost a blueprint for the rest of the book.  Part II ends with Krystal and Fats having sex in a cemetery, strongly echoing Fats’ summation of the two most important elements that make up life.  Part III ends with Nana Cath’s funeral and Krystal being raped.  Part IV ends with the election, so I’m not sure how it fits in exactly, but maybe the thematic element is in the middle of Part IV instead of the end, since it’s the middle chapter?  Part V ends with Robbie’s death, due in part to Krystal and Fats’ irresponsible coupling, and Part VI ends with Krystal “trying to die,” and succeeding.  Part VII ends with the music at Robbie and Krystal’s funeral, and the townspeople averting their eyes from her grieving junkie mother, because they’re still unable or unwilling to really see or engage with her, and the river of their selfish, judgmental pettiness is going to keep rushing on uninterrupted.  (How depressing!)

Now that I look back at all the repetitions, I don’t know why I was so shocked by Robbie and Krystal’s deaths at the end.  I should have seen them coming.

Of course, there were lighter moments, too!  One of my favorite descriptions, perhaps ever, was of Krystal’s education:

Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.

I also enjoyed the humor in royal-watching Shirley’s volunteering at the hospital with a fantasy that the Queen will visit and thank her, diabetic Tessa’s characterization of muffins and chocolate as “traitorous  glucose,” and the abundance of descriptions of the gossiping bussybodies that populate Pagford, like this one:

Maureen’s mouth was hanging open again; she was like an ancient baby bird, or perhaps a pterodactyl, hungering for regurgitated news.

My favorite character was definitely Sukhvinder Jawanda; I felt she was one of the bright spots in this little town full of so much pathetic meanness.  After all, she is the only one who tries to help rescue Robbie.  I felt a lot of empathy for her in her self-loathing, egged on by Fats’ torment, and my heart nearly broke for her at this relatable pain:

His every insult and jibe was branded on Sukhvinder’s memory, sticking there as no useful fact had ever done.  If she could have been examined on the things he had called her, she would have achieved the first A grade of her life.

I was glad her parents discovered that she was cutting, and I hope the therapy they’ve enrolled her in will be helpful, and that they will learn to communicate their appreciation and love for her instead of cutting her down and complaining that she isn’t a superstar.  (Is it weird to hope for things for the futures of fictional characters?)

As for whether or not I would read the next book by Rowling, I might, but I will read the early reviews and excerpts next time, (which I completely avoided this time around), before deciding if it sounds like something I want in my mind.  Rowling isn’t the cheerful and optimistic author I wanted her to be, but she’s still very talented, and I must accept the reality of other people.

 

**update** J.K. Rowling has answered a fan question about the gritty, realistic characters in this book at length. Her response is very detailed and it makes me appreciate the story further.

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Is McGonagall Filch’s Mother?

I’ve noticed several people asking this question online.

The answer is: NO.  There isn’t even a hint of confusion to anyone who has read the books, (who would know that Professor Minerva McGonagall never married and* has no children,  and that Filch’s full name is Argus Filch so they don’t have the same last name anyway, and also his magical family is ashamed of his being a squib and I don’t think McGonagall would ever be ashamed of her own child if she had one).  But for people whose knowledge of the Harry Potter universe is informed only by the film adaptations, I think I can pinpoint the moment of misunderstanding.

images from purepotter.tumblr.com

About forty minutes into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, after Harry has returned to Hogwarts and Professor McGonagall has dueled Snape right out the window, and Voldemort projects his voice and says they should hand over Potter, and Pansy Parkinson yells “someone grab him!”, then Filch comes running into the Great Hall where everyone else is assembled shouting about the students being “out of bed!”  An exasperated McGonagall says, “They are supposed to be out of bed, you blithering idiot!”  An abashed Filch responds, “Oh…sorry Ma’am.” Next McGonagall intones, “As it happens, Filch, your arrival is most opportune.  If you would I would like you please to lead Miss Parkinson and the rest of Slytherin House from the hall,” and Filch asks, “Exactly where is it I’ll be leading them to, Ma’am?”  (To which McGonagall zings “The dungeons would do,” an exchange I have outlined non-linguistic criticisms for elsewhere.)

The confusion for audience members who have only watched the movies lies in Filch’s dialect; although “ma’am” rhymes with “ham” in Standard American English, in some dialects of British English is rhymes with “farm.”  Furthermore in some dialects of British English “r”s are deleted, so that pronouncing “ma’am” to sound like “farm” but dropping the “r” ends up sounding like the Standard American English pronunciation for “mom.”

Okay?  Got it, confused googler?  Now why don’t you start actually reading the Harry Potter books instead of googling silly questions like this one?  They are great reads and I promise there are a plethora of rich and interesting character relationships and dynamics, even if Filch being McGonagall’s son isn’t one of them.

*information released on Pottermore.com has now informed us that McGonagall was in fact married.

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Nerdy Harry Potter 7.2 Criticisms

I finally saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2, for the second time yesterday.  I have decided it is probably nearly as good as it could have been.  I think I may have enjoyed it more at the second viewing, being prepared for what was to come and less distracted by my disappointments, but I missed the enthusiasm of the crowd at the midnight viewing.  This dumb audience yesterday hardly laughed or cheered at any part, and they smelled of nachos and loudly crunching popcorn and a large group wandered in forty minutes after it had started.  Muggles!

Anyway, even though I would say that overall this movie is “very good,” there are still several things that I didn’t like or that just bothered me as a fan of the books.  Some are more trivial than others, and this post will probably not include every criticism I have for the movie adaptations.  Nor am I including praise for the hundreds of things I do love about the films.

Okay, one of the things that really irked me about HP7.2 was McGonagall’s lines to Filch after Pansy Parkison cries out, “What are you waiting for?!  Someone grab him!” (Harry, whom Voldemort has just demanded).  Filch comes running in yelling “Students out of bed!”, which, yes, is funny, and an exasperated McGonagall informs him “they’re supposed to be out of bed,” but then she continues, “As it happens, your arrival is most opportune.  If you would, please lead Ms. Parkinson and the rest of Slytherin house out of the hall.”  Filch asks where he is supposed to take them, and McGonagall replies, “The dungeons would do.”  Her remark is followed by cheesy cheering from the rest of the students.

I really dislike this exchange, mostly because it undermines one of the great messages of the Harry Potter series, one which is even included in the epilogue concluding the entire saga.  When little Albus Severus Potter is worried he might be sorted into Slytherin house, his father reminds him “You are named after two headmasters at Hogwarts, one of them was a Slytherin and he was the bravest man I’ve ever known.”  When Albus is still unsure, Harry says if it happens, “Then Slytherin house will have gained a fine new wizard.”  It echos back to what Dumbledore tells Harry at the end of Chamber of Secrets, that “It is our choices, Harry, not our abilities, that define who we truly are.”  I’ve always really loved that message, and McGonagall’s line and everybody’s stupid cheering sweeps it aside, glossing all the Slytherin’s together just because Pansy Parkinson is a dumbass.  Yes, probably (definitely) there are other Slytherins who would rather join the Death Eaters than fight against them.  But they should be given the dignity to choose their own side, just as they and all the students are in the books.  And let’s not forget that this is the installment that finally reveals what a hero Snape of Slytherin house is!   The movie gains nothing from a line like this except comic relief.  Well, shame on you, Steve Kloves, you should have been able to come up with something funny that wasn’t so Troll-ish.

Second major criticism: child Lily’s eyes!  ALL of my Harry Potter friends that saw the movie had this same complaint.  When the dying Snape asks Harry to “Look at me,” and the movie even added the line “You have your mother’s eyes,” just to make it super-ultra clear why he wanted Harry’s eyes to be the last thing he saw, (which is one of my favorite parts of the book), you would think the producers would realize that it is very important that Lily’s eyes actually match Harry’s!  But in the very beginning of Snape’s memories, there’s a close-up of her eyes, and they are BROWN!?!!  It is already a great annoyance to me that Harry’s eyes are blue in the movies instead of the green from the books, but very well, you’ve decided to go with blue, so, then, you damn well better make Lily’s eyes blue as well.  Did you not have the budget for contact lenses or CGI?  You know this movie is just about to make a billion dollars worldwide, a billion, and no money could be spared on this very important detail?!  I wouldn’t be quite so annoyed if you hadn’t specifically called attention to it mere moments before!  In the dialogue, not subtly!  I cannot fathom how such an obvious error was made.

Another obvious (to me) error was when Ron spoke Parseltongue to open the Chamber of Secrets, (so he and Hermione can get some Basilisk fangs and destroy a horcrux.)  He’s supposed to say “Open.”  In the book he has to try it several times before getting it right.  In the movie, it works for him the first time, and he turns to Hermione and explains, “Harry talks in his sleep, have you noticed?”  The problem with this scene is that Ron most certainly does NOT say “open”.  I’ve seen Chamber of Secrets and Deathly Hallows part 1 (when Harry opens the locket) enough times to know that “open” sounds like this: sh::::ai::::::ah-hae:::suruh.  (Colons mean you hold out the sound.)  Anyway, that’s not what Ron says.  Go watch it.  It’s not even close.  And again, I just don’t understand how the hell a movie with a budget this big, and with so many people involved, doesn’t get something like that right.  How did they manage to have Harry say it the same way in movies 2 and 7, and not get this?!

Additionally, I think they really should have explained the Deathly Hallows more, or at least mentioned them again at the end, because it’s quite an important detail that when Harry goes to face Voldemort in the forest, intending to let himself be killed, he is in fact master of all three.  He’s wearing the invisibility cloak, (of course he’s not wearing it in the movie, because he hardly every does, and it’s such a shame, especially when they’ve demonstrated in the Gringotts escapade how marvelously it can be done on film), he’s got the resurrection stone and he is the proper master of the Elder Wand.  I guess people can figure it out, if they think about it, but I bet people who haven’t read the books don’t pick up on that.

Speaking of people who haven’t read the book, I don’t think Snape’s memories were very clear, either.  I’m glad they are at least included, I’m glad we saw him conjure his patronus and say “Always,” I’m willing to accept that they filled up time we could have been seeing his actual memories with clips from previous films to help revise his history in the audience’s mind, but there is still something lacking.  I dislike the line at King’s Cross station when Harry says that Snape and his mother both have a doe patronus, “Curious, isn’t it?”  and Dumbledore just says, “Actually now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem curious at all.”  This feels out of place, and I mean, it shouldn’t even be necessary because if Harry has seen all of Snape’s memories it should be obvious that Snape loved his mother.  And furthermore, the movies never did mention that your patronus could change if you were in love, because they never talked about Tonks and Lupin in great detail.  One of my friends who has not read the books asked after this movie ended, “So was Snape Harry’s real dad?”  See what I mean?  Not clear enough.

I’m so over the wand cores connecting every time Voldemort and Harry face off.  It is supposed to be this very rare thing, that only happens because their wands share a core, and only happens once, at the end of Goblet of Fire.  I’m sort of resigned to the fact that they love doing it in the movies because it is a visual medium and it has become an iconic image.  But this time I saw a glimpse of Arthur Weasley with his wand connected to whomever he was fighting, and I just sighed, like, really?  I enjoy movies, I love books, it’s fun to see a movie based on a book I’ve read, but it’s always a cheaper, blander universe.  It’s like talking to someone who has read the book, and liked it, but can’t really remember everything that happened, and gets quotes and names wrong, and would probably say “Wingard Levosa!” instead of “Wingardium Leviosa.”  It’s just annoying.

I don’t like that Voldemort disintegrated when he died.  I’m sure that was probably to help keep it PG-13, somehow, but then again there were dead bodies strewn about the entire castle.  Is it to show that he (and Bellatrix, who also disintegrates), are really “gone”?  Because I thought it had the opposite effect; the way that it lingered on the tiny floating pieces in the wind made it look like he was temporarily beaten but his soul might still be hanging around in the ether somewhere, waiting to posses another bald person and live on the back of their head.  I mean of course he’s not, they destroyed all the horcruxes, he is clearly dead for real, but I could see the visual representation of his demise leaving doubts.  Because at the end of the first movie he becomes a dust cloud, and obviously that isn’t the end of him.

Okay, last thought, and this one is really more of a question for the book that I only just realized when I saw the movie again–why isn’t Dumbledore one of the dead that Harry brings back to walk through the forest with him?  Is it because he is still uncertain and unsettled about their relationship, still feeling betrayed about all the things he didn’t know?  (I said before I that didn’t think the films made Harry have to face any of that, by the way.)  Of course it would take the punch out of the King’s Cross scene if Harry had just seen ghost Dumbledore in the forest, but still…it’s curious.  He certainly knew Dumbledore better than his parents.

Alright, enough whining.  Some other time maybe I’ll post about all the things I liked.  (Neville! Snape! Molly! Piertotum Locomotor! The music! The Gray Lady! Bellatrix-Hermione! The dragon! Neville again!)  Oh, and I’ve changed my header to include a fantastic line from Dumbledore at King’s Cross: “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”

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initial HP7.2 reactions

i went to the midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2, last night.  it was the last time i’ll ever go to a new harry potter movie! the fandom will live on, and i will definitely watch the movies and read the books again, over and over, and have parties where we dress up again, but there is something different about the energy when nobody has seen it yet and everybody is lined up waiting for hours and hours (i got there five hours early and the line was already around two corners of the theater).  i loved so many of the costumes. mine was an authentic ravenclaw robe.

i had expected to cry. i did not. i don’t know if it was because i was so tired, (i felt light-headed before the movie even started), or if it was because i had anticipated it too much and spent all my tears in the week leading up to it, or if i was unable to get into the emotion of the story because of the distraction of all the things they changed and the audience’s yelling and laughing and cheering and obscuring many of the lines of dialogue that i’m sure were great, or, maybe it was too fast.  maybe they really didn’t allow the emotion to develop.

i need to watch it again, under different, move well-rested and less high-expectation-ed circumstances, before i make a final judgment.  because there really were so many things that i loved. moments that i absolutely wanted to see included that were, characters that got terrific treatment.  i’m thinking of mcgonagall and mrs. weasley, and NEVILLE, and SNAPE!!!!!! and the beginning was good, and the gringots escapade was brilliant, and i expected they would change crap around, because they always do and because they had left out so many essentials from previous films they really had to scramble to explain things in this last one.

but.

i feel like it is the movie’s fault, not mine, that i didn’t cry.  i say that knowing i might change my mind after i see it again.  and knowing it sounds really arrogant and critical, and like i didn’t appreciate it, when in truth i absolutely loved so many individual scenes.  but i feel like the movie was too fast.  scenes were slammed together, plot points were included but i didn’t have time to get into the moment with any of them. they were all over too fast, and it was on to something else.  what was included was (mostly) terrific, but…i don’t know…i needed more.

i’m glad they split the final book into two films, there is no doubt we got to see more that way. but. they still left too much out, or didn’t properly handle what they included. for instance, they establish the doubt about dumbledore’s intentions and trustworthiness in part 1. they meet aberforth in part 2 and he is resentful towards his brother, and then…nothing. we don’t get any resolve to that, unless you are satisfied by harry resolutely stating “i trusted the man i knew.” aberforth is right to retort “that’s a boy’s answer.”  film harry never really confronts the uncomfortable truths about his mentor, not even in the king’s cross station. which i’m sure is because of time constraints and pacing concerns and all that. but i’m just saying, there were a lot of subplots like that about which i felt unsatisfied.

another example–in the trailer, we saw tonks and lupin stretch out their hands during the battle of hogwarts reaching for each other. when i saw that clip i got teary-eyed, thinking, oh! lupin and tonks! they’re going to show them fighting together, and they’ll probably have some really great lines and i will cry.  but they didn’t. their part was in the trailer almost entirely.  that was it. just a few seconds of them reaching out, they didn’t even touch hands. and we didn’t get to see them cast any spells, hit any death eaters, protect any innocents. just, hands reaching out, and then later, there they lie.  i really wanted to see more of the good guys fighting.  the battle of hogwarts focused on the trolls and spiders and death eaters and things getting blown up. why couldn’t we have seen just a few quick shots of people like mr. weasley or kingsley shacklebot or lupin or tonks or neville’s grandmother or any of the students fighting back valiently? a hero shot!

neville got lots of hero shots. and i loved every single one of them.

snape’s story got the attention it deserved-snape!  i always believed in snape!  i was most looking forward to his part.  i came the closest to crying then.  i physically jumped in my seat when the snake attacked. i wanted to cry at his memories so badly.  maybe i will next time. i though alan rickman was perfect.   but the memories went by very quickly, too, and were interspersed with these weird quotes and quick shots of other things, and i don’t remember noticing the music. was there music?  was it good?  oh, snape. my beautiful, brave snape.  i love you so much more than the arrogant and reckless harry.

*sigh*  whenever i finish reading book 7 i always think, “noooo! it can’t be over, i need more!”  so maybe my negative reactions are the same phenomenon translated to movie universe.  maybe it’s because anything that didn’t get wrapped up or included never will be, now.  maybe it was any of the reasons i’ve already stated.

i’ll watch it again and let you know.

 

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