Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Round Up


Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, The Half Blood Prince, and the Deathly Hallows
I spent most of July rereading the Harry Potter series. Mmmm...still so good even though I knew everything that was going to happen.

First of all, reading them all in one big gulp has me seriously wondering how in the hell we were able to wait years between books. I remember how it felt when a new book came out---that desperate need to just find out what happened! I literally didn't do anything else for the 10 days I blew through these. On each day that I finished one, I'd watch the movie that night, and then pick up the next book the following morning.

It was so much fun to rediscover Harry and his world. I remembered the big, sweeping arc of the plot; I had forgotten all of the fun details and interesting characters. I laughed out loud as Tonks and Mad-Eye discussed the possibility of accidentally removing your own buttocks by sticking a wand in your pocket. I forgot how Dobby, so annoying at first, became the most lovable little character. I grieved for Harry when Sirius died. I cheered madly as they all defended Hogwarts from the Death Eaters. I'm not kidding when I say that I'm half tempted to start all over again.

And yet, I also found myself wondering just what exactly it is about these books that makes them so spectacularly addictive. The descriptive writing is solid, but the dialogue could be a little wooden. I'm a fan of the elipses...but Rowling is...crazy...about them. It's downright bizarre that more of those didn't get edited out. The characters interesting, but many of them are one-dimensional. The cynical part of me wants to point out how clear-cut it all is: very few shades of black and white in these books. So easy to cheer on the good guys. And they books are predictable; after all, did any of us actually doubt that Harry would eventually win out over Voldemort?

In the end, none of that matters. These books are 4000 pages tightly packed with plots, subplots, mysteries, comedy, friendship, and most importantly love. I think I love these books because these characters have so much *heart.* Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the central figures, but they are surrounded by loads of everyday people just trying to do what's right.

It was interesting to read a book and then immediately watch the movie. I got a better sense of what was left out or changed. I had never even seen the Half Blood Prince. The movies are action packed thrillers, but they just can't really capture the emotional fullness of the books. I enjoyed some of the movies more than others. I guess I'd say that Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, and Deathly Hallows 2 were the best films. I still disliked the Goblet of Fire movie, which just cut too much. The special effects in the movies are awesome, and you can really see how far CGI has come in the last 10 years! My favorite scene is probably the fight between Voldemort and Dumbledore at the Ministry of Magic at the end of Order of the Phoenix. I love the part where Voldemort breaks all the glass and sends it towards Dumbledore, who turns it into sand.

I'm not sure I could name a favorite book. I guess the middle 3 are the best to me, from Prisoner of Azkaban through Order of the Phoenix. Chamber of Secrets is my least favorite. It always just seemed a little more boring than the others.

And, on a final note, after downing 5 Harry Potter books and 8 Harry Potter movies in a roughly 2 week period, my dreams were totally fucked up. If you ever need someone to pilot a flying car, DreamJenny is your girl.

The Paris Wife
So, I didn't love this book. It was a quick read, but it felt sort of clumsy and strange to me. It's a fictionalized account of Earnest Hemingway's life in Paris in the early 20s. The Paris Wife is mostly narrated by Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. I say "mostly narrated" because there are occasional chapters narrated by Hemingway---or maybe I should say "mostly narrated" for his chapters, because they are in italics, and these chapters only happen a few times when the author needs to disclose something Hadley doesn't know. It's awkward.

Part of the thing that really bugged me about this book is this fictionalizing of a real person's life. I had a similar problem with a book I started and then abandoned called The Women, which gives the same treatment to Frank Lloyd Wright's wives and mistresses. Here's the deal: I don't mind historical fiction, which is the creation of fake characters in a real context. But making up an inner life for a real person? Hmmm....I just don't know.

There are 2 issues for me with this kind of book. First of all, the events of the book seem too recent, too close. Hadley died in 1979 and presumably has living descendents who could offer up information about her real feelings. After doing a little research, I discovered that there is at least one biography written about her. Hemingway's own memoir, A Moveable Feast, which was published after his suicide, apparently covers their life together in Paris. Given all the real information available about her, why was I reading a fictionalized account of her life? Interestingly, I loved Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which does something similar with Thomas Cromwell. But that dude lived 500 years ago! He's a blank slate and it seemed a little less...offensive? create a backstory for him on whatever historical record exists. The second problem is the creation of the inner dialogue. If this story had been presented as a film ("hey, come see this movie about Hemingway's first marriage!"), I wouldn't have thought twice. But when you as an author are actually putting fake thoughts into a real person's head? Not okay.

Finally, the book just felt a little heavy handed. Hadley is the good girl, bullied by big, bad Earnest Hemingway. Maybe that's true, but as a reader you can't help thinking that poor Hadley is a real fucking pushover. At one point, she actually lives openly with Earnest and his mistress, even though she doesn't really want to. Perhaps she even has a sexual encounter with the other 2 on one afternoon (a little vague there---made me wish that scene was written by a romance novelist so I really knew what was going on. Heh.)!

The Paris Wife is a page turner and an easy read. But here's the kicker: at the end of the book, when I finished the last page and thought about what I was taking away from it, there was nothing there. I was definitely interested in Hemingway and in knowing more of the real story. In other words, the take away of The Paris Wife was that I should have read A Moveable Feast instead.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
This just might be my favorite (new) book of the year so far. I'm a big fan of narrative non-fiction, especially about science topics. I think my science knowledge is seriously lacking---I blame our high school for this---but lately there's been a few books that combine scientific history or knowledge with personal human stories. I love reading a great story AND learning something at the same time. (FYI: 2 other books I enjoyed were Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Of course, the gold standard in this category is probably Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.)

I first heard about this book when I read a review of it in the New York Times Book Review. I picked up a copy at the Borders Bender a few months ago. It was as spectacular as promised. Casey explains that for hundreds of years, mariners have reported being tossed about by 100 foot waves (stop a second to contemplate that---as tall as a 10 story building. Yikes!). Scientists had thought such waves were impossible until a ship on a scientific expedition was able to record such waves after being trapped in a nasty North Atlantic storm.

The book tells the story of the science behind freak waves (often these 100 footers are rogue waves that appear in storms where normal swells are maybe only 60 feet) by visiting places around the world where they are most likely to happen. The author visits scientists in a remote part of Alaska, marine salvage experts at the tip of South Africa, and the insurance house Lloyds of London. Casey alternates these more expository chapters with chapters that follow an elite group of surfers, primarily Laird Hamilton, as they crisscross the globe in search of the perfect, surfable, monster waves.

This book was captivating. The lives of the surfers and what it takes to tow-surf into a 60 or 70 foot wave is fascinating. And even the science-y chapters, which you might think are more boring, are completely interesting. Casey does a superb job of explaining how and why waves, and why they are so completely dangerous to any ship in its path. This is a book that makes me vow to never set food on a cruise ship while simultaneously making me want to learn how to surf. Now this is what I call a summer read!



  1. I might have to do a HP Read-a-thon during my upcoming sabbatical (YES! Sabbatical! I flipping love that!) But then I have the problem of thinking magic is real all the time and being sooo disappointed when it isn't.

    I've picked up The Paris Wife before with interest, but, thanks to your review, I'll pass on it. I've always wanted to read A Moveable Feast, though. Want to do a read-along?

    The idea of a "rogue wave" that is 100 feet tall makes me want to puke. And also... stay on land. Forever.

  2. K,

    Would definitely be interested in a Hemingway read-along of A Moveable Feast. You tell me when ;-)