In re-reading Harry Potter for the first time in over six years, it's fascinating to come into the world of the books now having watched most of the f...moreIn re-reading Harry Potter for the first time in over six years, it's fascinating to come into the world of the books now having watched most of the films at least twice a year. I was struck throughout my read of this first book with the fact that I knew so much more than Harry did-about everything. It was difficult to imagine what I would have thought of the story if I wasn't already embedded in the mythos of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley and Dumbledore. My impression from this revisit is that I would have found it hard to enjoy any of the characters.
It's initially difficult to understand how Harry is even a functioning human being after the hyperbolic amount of child abuse that is his upbringing. Perhaps we're supposed to treat Harry's childhood like a fairy tale: that because he is our hero, his inner virtue somehow carries him through the terrors of being forced to live in a cupboard, treated like a servant, insulted and hit regularly, and given "gifts" such as old socks and coat-hangers. But Harry didn't just move in with his evil relations after a happy childhood with his caring family. No, these people have raised him from age one. If the Dursley's treated 3-year-old Harry the way the treat 11-year- old Harry, then I don't know how Harry would be able to form attachments of any kind or feel anything but contempt for himself. Perhaps Rowling trusts our suspension of disbelief for the sake of a magical story, but Harry's orphanhood in the books is to such an extent that from the get-go, I'm suspicious of the author.
Another major challenge was the caustic and insulting way everyone speaks to one another. Half way through the book, nearly every main character has been told to "Shut Up" or has lobbed the phrase at someone else. I quickly began noting the places were Hermione is treated as or explicitly called a nag (marked as "Hag" -"Hermione Nagging"). Rowling even has the narrator imply that Hermione is somehow wrong for refusing to let Ron and Harry copy her homework. Apparently a good friend would let you cheat? And while Neville finds ways to stand up for himself and is rewarded by Dumbledore for his bravery, the trio (and the narrator) generally talk about him like a pathetic pain in the ass. Overall, there is little kindness, compassion, or genuine connection between the characters. Even noble-hearts like Hagrid and Dumbledore often read as comically sentimental or stupid. In reading, I felt was being invited to despise people rather than identify with them.
DId I like anything? Yes. Once we finally left the Muggle world, I still found myself relishing every magical and mysterious detail of Hogwarts, as I do with the films. I also appreciated how swiftly the story moved along, compared to the film (and most of the books to come). But I REALLY enjoyed reading the UK version. First of all, it's always bugged the heck out of me that the term "Sorcerer's Stone" was used in the US, seeing as there is no such thing as a sorcerer's stone. The idea of the Philosopher's Stone goes back hundreds of years in the lore of alchemy. How sad that publisher's trusted 10 yr olds in the UK to know what the philosopher's stone was, but feared American kids wouldn't be willing to find out. I felt proud to be carrying a book with the true title.
Also, in choosing the read the UK edition, I immediately found myself noting certain phrases and spellings so I could cross-reference them with the American version. I LOVED this. It was surprising to see what was kept, what was replaced, and what was simply clarified. UK "Hamburger Bars" became "Hamburger Restaurants," "revision timetables" became "study schedules," "football" became "soccer" of course, and "Hallowe'en" became "Halloween." But I still don't know what a "knickerbocker glory" is, and surprisingly the US edition didn't help me.
Ultimately I'll never know if I would have fallen in love with this world if I'd met it first through this book. My gut says no. But then again, I remember relishing the first three books when I read them back in the fall of 2004 before I had the chance to memorize the films. I'm hoping that some character depth and truthful interactions begin to emerge as the books go on. Frankly, I think if these books had been written by a man, the portrayal of Hermione alone would have sparked public book burnings.
Here's hoping the wonder, bravery and tenderness of the films' world begins soon to prove revelatory of its roots in the original texts.(less)
In my late teens, I read nearly every Charlotte Brontë biography in the cannon, except the most famous one: the one written by her friend, fellow auth...moreIn my late teens, I read nearly every Charlotte Brontë biography in the cannon, except the most famous one: the one written by her friend, fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell. I skipped it for a few reasons. One, every contemporary biography essentially ransacks Gaskell's work, citing it every three pages or so. So, I kind of felt like I'd already read it. Second, Brontë biographies were my introduction to "Mrs. Gaskell" and they didn't paint her in the best light. Most 20th century Brontë biographers see Gaskell as having written a hyper-glossed apologetic for Charlotte's feminine merits, highlighting wherever possible, no matter how illogical, that Brontë was a model daughter and housekeeper. I assumed therefore that "Mrs Gaskell" was ashamed of Charlotte's passionate nature and literary ventures, and was trying to bury them under a safe Victorian "angel in the house" motif.
Fifteen years later, having read some of Gaskell's fiction, I know that couldn't be the case. Gaskell was anything but ashamed of strong women or iconoclasts. So was what Brontë biographers implied true? It was time to find out for myself.
First of all, the greatest challenge (for me) reading Gaskell's Life of Brontë is that I've never read 19th century biography. It is one behemoth of a genre, and one that few of us have context for anymore. Back in the day, it seemed the great past time (or duty) of every great writer was to eulogize other great writers with epic biographies. If you want to explore some of these, Charlotte Brontë herself suggests "for biography, read Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Southey's Life of Nelson, Lockhart's Life of Burns, Moore's Life of Sheridan, Moore's Life of Byron," and so on. So entering Gaskell's Life of Brontë is to some extent, an expedition into the world of those leather-bound tomes full of dates, correspondences, and panegyrics from one great author to another. As one who reads 150 year-old fiction on a nonstop basis, this genre still felt quite foreign.
In persevering, though, I found some things well worth the search. I read the Oxford Classics edition and highly recommend it for its notes. The main challenge in reading, is that Gaskell is bound both by Victorian propriety and by perceived obligation to her friend Charlotte, to protect both her privacy and her reputation. Thus, no juicy bits or suppositions about what's happening in-between the lines of her letters (and life). But the Oxford notes offer great annotations and corrections when possible. That enervating habit of 19th century authors to blank out names of people and places, gets filled in by flipping to the end notes. Hallelujah. (Though this did triple the length of reading time).
I still felt pretty distant from the Charlotte Brontë presented in the pages. The version of her you get is so much Gaskell's redaction, that despite 70% of the text being letters from Brontë's own hand, it still feels emotionally and contextually distant, (at least for this modern reader). But that's likely a genre and context issue. It's clear that Gaskell wanted Brontë's critics to know that the author of Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette was an unassuming and unpretentious woman who lived a quiet life of suffering and struggle, and who shied away from fame. Against Brontë's detractors who accused her pseudonymous "Currer Bell" of being "course" and "un-Christian," Gaskell displays the deep moral and spiritual convictions, reservedness and compassion that epitomized this Yorkshire curate's daughter.
Though Gaskell's Life of Brontë is perhaps less illuminating of Brontë's relationships and life choices than is contemporary scholarship, the work is indeed, as Charlotte's father Rev Patrick Brontë said, "in every way worthy of what one great woman should have written of another."
What I enjoyed most was the amount of correspondence time Brontë takes in recommending and critiquing literature. Her relationship with her publishers turned into what seemed a perpetual book club of trading books and reviews. And what sticks out so often is that Brontë rarely mentions plot construction, setting or even language. Her responses almost always center on what the author uncovers or expresses of true human nature, or how the heart and mind of the author is revealed in their writing. That's how I read Brontë's writing as well. Not surprising then that it was in these passages that I got the clearest sense of who this woman was, and as a result, drew nearer to her.
Gaskell's Life of Brontë is a must-read for any Brontë devotee, even if only to gain respect and sympathy for the short and impacting friendship shared by two culture-shaping women, who could never have predicted the reach of their legacies. This is Elizabeth mourning the loss of her friend Charlotte, in the kindest way she could think of. It's much appreciated.(less)
Having come to Les Miserables with only a North American osmosis-knowledge of the musical, memories of the 1998 film, and a lifetime of sermons refere...moreHaving come to Les Miserables with only a North American osmosis-knowledge of the musical, memories of the 1998 film, and a lifetime of sermons referencing the encounter between Jean Valjean, the Bishop and the candlesticks, I am surprised by what I actually found here.
Maybe it was all the times I've seen high-schoolers perform "Do You Hear the People SIng?", but somehow I got it in my brain that this was about the French Revolution. Maybe I conflated it with" A Tale of Two Cities" (wouldn't be hard to do). But instead, we find ourselves in 1830 for the most part, dealing with a France recovering or revolting from the post-Napoleonic return to monarchy. While I know a lot about what was happening in England from 1790-1840, French history of this period is pretty much a blank for me. As a result, every time Hugo spent a couple chapters recreating the battle of Waterloo blow for blow or profiling specific royalist publications vs republican barroom conversations, I couldn't help but feel a bit lost/bored.
Because here's the charming/enervating thing about Hugo's writing. You notice early on that every time a new character is introduced or even a new building entered, you are regaled with 40 pages detailing the history of everything leading up to the moment at hand, or sometimes ending twenty years in the past, with connections to the present only to be made 700 pages later. At first, especially when pertaining to the Bishop and his sister, these pastoral expansions of narrative-background help the reader gain a wide sense of the world inhabited by the characters. But by page 1030 when Hugo decides to spend 6 chapter sections on the history of Parisian sewers and how France would flourish financially if it used human waste to fertilize farmlands, you can't blame yourself if you decide to skim a bit.
Ultimately, any adaptation of Les Miserables is plot-focused: Jean Valjean's journey of atonement/rehabilitation or the love story between Cosette and Marius. But when you read the novel, it's pretty clear that plot was just a means for Hugo to ruminate on a changing France and the forces which altered her. The book is far more history text than novel.
Further, Hugo appears a bit cagey in how he's actually portraying his protagonists. It's often difficult to discern when he's praising their actions or mocking their self-delusions. Most surprising was the narration of the riots and barricade. Unlike the stouthearted portrayals on film and stage, these scenes from Hugo most often read sardonically and mockingly. He seems to treat all the characters with a fair bit of irony and often patronizes their noble intentions and celebrates their ineffectualness. This is not the anthemic battle cry of a Broadway show; it's a deliberation on mankind's folly and the ever-eroding nature of time.
Hugo's ostensibly playful, ironic style also comes through rather delightfully in his obtuse chapter names, such as: "V. It's Not Enough To Be A Drunk To Be Immortal," "XVI. Where You Will Find The Words Of An English Tune Fashionable In 1832," or "IV. Mademoiselle Gillenormand Winds Up Deciding It Is Not Such A Bad Thing That Monsieur Fauchelevent Came With Something Under His Arm."
Previously, I've never understood how people are willing to read an abridged version of a book. With Les Miserables, it makes sense. But then again, that leaves readers with the impression that Hugo only wrote a dramatic plot about identity and escape. If you're going to tackle this epic, might as well read the one Hugo wanted you to know. Like Moby Dick, though, don't beat yourself up if you skip 10 pages here and there.(less)