Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling

There will be spoilers for the original seven in this review, but I have whited out spoilers from "Cursed Child."

A true child of the Harry Potter generation, I picked my reserved copy of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" up at midnight and started it as soon as I got home. The fact that I fell asleep 100 pages in speaks to the fact that I'm not the energetic high schooler I was when "Deathly Hallows" came out, and that the bar exam was earlier the week and I still haven't fully recovered from that ordeal.

So I finished the last two-thirds this morning, and my feelings are decidedly mixed. As I noted in my Goodreads review immediately after I finished, this series was an enormous part of my childhood & I'll likely continue to be eager for new installments, and consume them in whatever form they take, problematic as they may be. And in that sense, "Cursed Child" fulfills its responsibilities. We're back in this magical, surreal, bewitching world, with the characters we know and love. For the most part, they behave like the aged versions of themselves that I had envisioned. Ron's dialogue is particularly good, as is McGonagell's. We get a new adventure with the new generation and friendship takes center stage. It's lovely. 

The original seven were inspired by Rowling's grief over her mother's death, and that grief and love of a child for an absent parent is inseparably woven into the main series. Now we have an older author, an established parent with three children in contrast to the single mother of a young daughter coping with her own grief who penned the original series. The change in life circumstances is apparent in the new installment, focusing heavily on parent-child relationships from the parent's perspective. We see both Harry reflecting on his trouble relating to his son Albus, and Albus reflecting on his trouble with his famous dad. We knew this was going to be the central relationship in the story & it felt like the truest element. I'm not a parent myself, but it seems a natural progression given the course of Rowling's life and how heavily it influenced her first books. On the whole it is this theme that allows for adequate comparison of this installment with the rest of the series, and that makes this play worthy of inclusion. 

But there are some problems. And this discussion of the problems necessarily involves spoilers, so highlight the next paragraphs if you've read the book and/or don't mind being spoiled. Stop here if you don't want to be spoiled (especially if you're reading on the mobile device, because I'm not sure whether the white-text spoilers will display as white text on the mobile site). Know that I'm glad I read it, but felt it didn't quite live up to the main series.

First, Draco. Building off my previous comments, Draco did not feel realistic. He starts the play in an uneasy position with Harry, much as we left him in the epilogue. They can be civil for short periods, but that pretense falls apart with extended time together. Then, their sons disappear together for a second time, and in just a couple pages of dialogue they have decided to be friends for their sons' sake. I believe this is the type of thing parents can and will do for their children. This just should have taken longer. At least Ron's discomfort and inability to let the past die easily feels true. 

Second, and most critically, this play has plotting issues, especially in light of the rest of the rest of the series. One of the things that makes the original seven such a joy & a masterpiece is Rowling's careful and diligent plotting. Most notably, she lays the groundwork for the horcruxes in "Chamber of Secrets," but there are also countless smaller bits throughout - seeming throwaway characters who pop up later with renewed significance, a certain diadem that takes on new meaning once readers know what they're looking for, etc. 

Delphi is an aberration. There is nothing from the original series that led us to believe Voldemort had a child. And that's a pretty big reveal, for someone who knows her world and her characters as well as Rowling. She knows their histories and their futures, but she left us no clues to this massive reveal. Further, the point in the timeline into which it is was inserted, at the Malfoy Manor before the Battle of Hogwarts is incongruous as well. We saw Bellatrix then, when the gang was briefly held prisoner in the basement, and there was no reference to a current pregnancy or recent birth. But if Bellatrix were to have had Delphi prior to the Battle, she should have been either fairly far along in a pregnancy or have had a baby somewhere in the house. 

If this was something Rowling had been planning all along, I cannot believe she would not have laid some small detail there for readers to find and ponder. Its absence makes it seem to me that the other two playwrights approached her with vague ideas of Voldemort's daughter and time travel, and how cool it could look on a stage rather than a screen, and she shoehorned their ideas into the existing timeline, instead of adhering to the histories she has already written for her characters. When the plotting was such a central feature of the original books, its abandonment here is conspicuous and disappointing, a disservice to fans who followed her breadcrumbs so closely they were able to identify all seven horcruxes before the publication of the last book

Third, and finally, there are distracting technical issues. I understand fully that this is a play intended to be seen live, not read on the page. But the playwrights, Rowling included, also knew the vast majority of fans would be consuming it as words on a page, so it is not unreasonable to hold them to the expectations inherent in producing a new printed, written installment in the most popular book series in history. There are moments where the other playwrights' writing pokes through in the stage directions. Most notably, on pg. 249 (of the US edition) there is a stage direction "This is almost a Spartacus moment" that is so out of sync with Harry Potter-style writing that I had to put the book down and Google. Luckily, it is the only such direct reference, but its significance bears discussion.

One of the elements that has made the series endure is its lack of dated elements - though we have a clear timeline with years, the lack of technology and pop culture references prevents the books from getting mired in a specific moment, so readers of all ages can read them unbound from the details that would typically place a work in a specific period. So a Spartacus reference stands out like a sore thumb, and made me, a reader who admits to only a basic understanding of what exactly that references means, feel left out and confused by a world that previously had been entirely accessible among its own pages. Rowling's writing is, of course, full of allusions and inspirations from countless mythologies, but those are bonuses to those who study them or bring such knowledge with them. Picking up on them is not necessary to one's understanding of the story. A stage direction in the sparse text of a script with a direct reference that goes over some readers' heads or prompts them to put down the book for a quick Google is leaving some of us out. And that's a bad feeling, one that Rowling avoided for seven books, whether intentionally or not. It makes it clear that this is a different type of work, and sets it apart from the original seven in an unfortunate way.  

On a much smaller note on the stage directions, there were several that seemed to direct how the audience was to feel at a given moment. For example, "VOLDEMORT comes through the back of the stage, and across it, and walks down into the auditorium. He brings death with him. And everyone knows it." (p. 294 of the US edition). Maybe the direction is referring to the actors on stage, but given that Voldemort has descended from the stage into the audience, that seems unlikely. Such a blanket description of the intended mood in theater struck me as either presumptuous if intended as an actual direction for the actors, or alternatively failing to show the reader of print rather than tell. 

See,that specific spoiler-y example is also a direction immediately prior to a scene cut, though it's a scene cut that doesn't actually change place or time from the one preceding it. So it would seem a cut made only for the dramatic tension of the reader of print. And if some decisions are already being made for the sake of the print reader, more attention could have been paid, confusion avoided with the addition of an extra stage direction or two, and more atmosphere built rather than simply stating the hoped-for feeling exists. 

I'm grateful that Rowling is providing us with more from the world of Harry Potter, and perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high. But I'll also argue that Rowling earned our high expectations in delivering an unparalleled fantasy series with a reach unlike anything that came before it, and then meticulously guarding her intellectual property and making careful decisions about how and when to expand the series and its surrounding world. It's a shame that there are parts of this story that distract too much to fully include it on the same level as the original seven.

Verdict: Jury's out. I'm happy I read this, and glad it exists to some extent. But more care could have given to devoted readers on a number of levels, and the incongruities are frustrating. I'm still hopeful, though, that the Harry Potter fandom will pick up on something that laid the groundwork for this that I simply missed.

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, published July 31, 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

"The Fireman" by Joe Hill

Joe hill's "The Fireman" was a terrible book to read in the final countdown to the bar exam. It was too compelling, too intriguing, too good at keeping me on the edge of my seat. So, it'll likely make a great summer read for anyone not trying to stay motivated in the home stretch of bar prep.

The world has been beset by a plague called Dragonscale, where the infected develop scale-like markings on their skin until they spontaneously combust. No one knows where the infection started or how it spreads, and people are panicking. Harper is a nurse who spends her days caring for the infected. She made a suicide pact with her husband in the event they become infected.

Harper's plans change, though, when she learns she's pregnant and becomes infected in quick succession. Now she has to figure out how to survive long enough to give birth to her child. Rumors are circulating of a man who has learned how to control the Dragonscale so that he does not ignite, and that he might even be able to control the fire and use it for his own purposes. Harper sets out to find the Fireman & figure out how to live long enough to give her baby a chance at life.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, and the influences are apparent in the best ways. He writes a tight thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat. It's got horror elements, but in the sense of King's "Under the Dome," where the paranormal is a pretense to examine humans & our responses to panic as the true villains. Though it's a horror thriller by genre, the action-packed sequences were my least favorite, and the book would have been stronger if it had minimized those to focus on the interpersonal dynamics.

Harper is a wonderful protagonist - strong, determined, and believable. Kate Mulgrew (from "Orange is the New Black" and reading & narrating her own excellent memoir, "Born with Teeth") does the audio narration and truly brings Harper to life. I could not think of a better match, and highly recommend the audio format specifically. Harper finds a cohort of like-minded individuals, and watching her navigate among the various personalities is the true core of the novel. Mulgrew's distinctive voice gives the reader the clear feeling of being inside Harper's head, evaluating the other characters and the world around her as she does.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're an SFF fan looking for a fast-paced summer read, definitely check this one out.

"The Fireman" by Joe Hill, published May 17, 2016 by William Morrow. Audio narration by Kate Mulgrew, published May 17, 2016.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Shrill" by Lindy West

I've been casually bumping into the work of Lindy West online for a few years, without realizing it was coming from the same incredible, inspiring woman. I first heard from her on This American Life, when she confronted an Internet troll who impersonated her deceased father to harass her. She is also a vocal critic of rape jokes as comedy and the founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign. Her recent memoir expands on these stories and her work as a fat acceptance advocate and journalist.

Prior to reading "Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman," I didn't know that West writes extensively about her life as a fat woman. She is reclaiming the word "fat" as a simple descriptor, rather than a source of shame (it is her preferred term, and so the one I will continue to use throughout this post), and working to combat the many negative stereotypes and harmful slights and insults suffered by the overweight. I also didn't realize that the same woman was behind the three works I mention above. In her memoir, West traces how she came to be he outspoken advocate she is today - how she grew out of and worked to overcome intense shyness, how she developed her views, came into her voice as an advocate, and honed her skills as a journalist and pundit. She shares openly from her personal life, speaking of her marriage and the death of her father with courage and great love for her family. West writes and narrates her audiobook with wit, crass metaphors, and deserved pride in the woman she knows herself to be

At the heart of "Shrill," though, is a call to arms. Women, fat people, and really all marginalized people, need to be supported and recognized as fellow humans, not shamed for whatever feature society has arbitrarily deemed unacceptable. She writes about being a woman and being fat specifically because these are the communities of which she is a part. Her underlying message of acceptance and understanding, though, is one that we would all do well to take into all facets of our lives. 

Verdict: Affirmed. West is a force to be reckoned with, and a woman whose work I hope more will discover. I can't wait to see what she does next. 

"Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman" by Lindy West, published May 17, 2016 by Hachette. Audio narration by Lindy West, published May 17, 2016 by Hachette Audio. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"All the Single Ladies" by Rebecca Traister

FTC disclaimer: I received a free e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook through Overdrive from my public library. 

Since I finished them both, I have been recommending Aziz Ansari's "Modern Romance" and Christian Rudder's "Dataclysm" together. They tackle the same topic, modern dating, in different research-based ways. They're basically the same book, but the former is told with more anecdotal, focus group-style social science and the latter is told through big data. You can read one and get the message of both if you're not up for two books on the same topic. But now, I've found the better complementary read to either of those books - Rebecca Traister's "All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation." Sure we're all dating differently with the rise of technology, but more and more women are also living alone and this is having profound effects on society. And maybe it should be having even more.

Traister explores the history of and recent increase in women embracing their singledom and living lives independently, whether by choice or circumstance. She discusses how this segment of the population has always existed, and how it is experienced differently in different demographic groups (while acknowledging that her interviewees skewed toward the college-educated). She discusses how women today come to live single lives for a variety of reasons - from conscious choice to unintended circumstances to a messy mixture of the two. The book covers a lot of ground. And she does this all without shaming anyone for their life choices or path. She shares stories from, and advocates for, all women, providing a vehicle for understanding and methods of supporting everyone's life choices. 

Most importantly, Traister explains how longstanding policies assume everyone aspires to marriage, or explicitly incentivize coupling up. She provides alternatives and policy goals to be pursued to ensure that women who do live alone are able to prosper. She convincingly makes the point that this segment of the population is growing and shows no signs of stopping. As a nation we should embrace them and get out of their way, making sure they have the resources they need to live healthy, happy lives, no matter the ultimate shape they take.

Verdict: Affirmed. Everyone should check out this book for an update on the state of women in America and how we can better support all women in their life choices. 

"All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation" by Rebecca Traister, published March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster. Audio narration by Candace Thaxton, published March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Audio.