Grown Woman Reads Harry Potter: 1

A Reading journal

I have, technically, read a Harry Potter book once before. I don’t quite remember if I was in middle school or if I was a freshman in high school, but I was around that age. Anyway, I liked the first book well enough, but then I started the second and I don’t think I made it past page 20. It was just like the first one. I was so bored. At a time when I never quit books, I declared it a kids’ book and figured I was too old for it, tossed it aside and moved on with my life.

I have seen all the movies, and enjoyed them (apart from the one with the spiders, which I didn’t like very much). But I never felt the need to go back and read the series: I figured it was something you had to grow up with to think it was amazing, and it just wouldn’t work on an adult. But now I have nieces and nephews, and my niece is reading through the series, and I thought I’d join her. It gives us something to talk about, and it gives me the push to see what the fuss is about.

I’m sure reading these without having seen the movies would be a different experience, but we can’t undo what’s been done, so let’s not dwell.

Also, I am a literary scholar, but this is not my workplace. I try to read for fun as much as I can, and while I can’t completely shut off my analytical mind (though I do try, because I love to enjoy my trashier reads), I am not here to write an article or come up with a new reading of Harry Potter. I’m just here to have fun.

So, I just finished the chapter where Harry is… Oh, OK. We may have a problem. I am reading this in Spanish because my library was out of the English copies, and they had the beautiful illustrated edition available in Spanish, so, I got that. So technically, I’m reading Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, translated by Alicia Dellepiane Rawson. But there are so many words that are made up and I am trying to remember what things are called in the movies. The sorting hat? That thing. That’s how far I’ve gotten.

I am amazed at how much I am enjoying this. I am someone who actively avoids reading middle grade. I do read YA, but I am usually disappointed. There is a reason books are classified by age – YA usually doesn’t have the same substance as adult, and of course, middle grade is even more simplified, because it’s written for children (duh!). But Rowling really did create a wonderful world, and I love the details of the first book, when you are just first entering into it. I can’t remember my initial reading experience well enough, but I imagine encountering this for the first time truly is magical.

Also, this illustrated edition (illustrations by Jim Kay) is gorgeous. I wasn’t so sure at first, when I saw pictures and videos of it, but it is wonderful. What an amazing thing, too, to be the person to illustrate Harry Potter! I can’t even draw a stick figure, but I’m kinda jealous of Jim Kay.

I am also thinking about buying the Harry Potter box set or even… Even investing in these illustrated editions? Who am I?!


What I Read: February 2019

  • Paul G. Tremblay: A Head Full of Ghosts
  • R.L. Stine: Locker 13
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
  • Hiromu Arakawa: Fullmetal Alchemist (volumes I-III)
  • Wendy Walker: Emma in the Night
  • A. J. Finn: The Woman in the Window
  • Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

The Buried Giant: Romance Retold

I’ve never read another Kazuo Ishiguro novel, and only got to The Buried Giant because a friend lent it to me, thinking it would interest me because of my work on medieval romance.

And if you have never read medieval romances, you will likely be sorely disappointed in this. I was curious to see how much people hated it, and I see the same sorts of complaints on goodreads and blogs: the characters are underdeveloped or at least unlikable, they speak so unnaturally, it is super repetitive. But hey, it’s Ishiguro, so, 3 stars?

Yes, dialogues are weirdly formal and repetitive. Yes, we are told the same thing repeatedly. Yes, people end up in a new place and we don’t know how they got there, and this structure gets old. Yes, there’s all kinds of fantastical creatures, but it doesn’t quite read like modern fantasy. But then, what is this? Well, it’s basically chivalric romance. And even I, who work on those texts, can’t say I actually enjoy the experience of reading medieval romances the same way I enjoy reading, say, thrillers, because they were not written for me, but for a completely different type of reader in a very different media environment. I do find them fascinating in scholarly terms, and I can appreciate what Ishiguro was doing with this novel. It is an amazing romance – modernized in some ways, but stylistically close to original medieval texts, which so grate modern readers. It deals with eternal themes, that would have been as interesting to a medieval reader as they are to a modern one: love, death, war, memory.

There are some updates, though. The love is between an elderly couple, not between a young knight and his lady. Arthur is basically a villain (or is he? I guess it depends on what you think about war and memory). I wouldn’t necessarily say the ambiguous treatment of the two warring sides is completely modern (there is a lot of subtlety in medieval romance and epics if you read it carefully enough), but it is very obviously there, more in-your-face than it would likely be in a medieval text where one side would more likely be exalted over another.

OK, so what do I think this book is really about? I think it uses the romance/fantasy frame to talk about:

  1. Memory and trauma, especially in war times. The questions it raises can easily be applied, to say, Bosnia. How do people go back to their lives and move on after a war in which neighbor kills neighbor, families are torn apart both from the outside and from within, and children are taught to hate the “other” (even when, as in this novel, there is so much intermingling that the lines become blurred, and presumably, many people do not strictly belong to one group or another, and yet are meant to choose)? Is it better to forget, and substitute forgetfulness for forgiveness, or to remember? What do we do with such history (I mean, literally, what do we do? How do we teach it? How do you explain it to your children?) Can such horrors be forgiven? Can they be explained, like Gawain keeps telling himself? Of course, the novel asks a similar question regarding personal relationship, which brings us two number 2.
  2. Much of this book is about marriage, and relationships in general. Forgiveness, growing apart, growing together, betrayals, etc.
  3. Self-deception and taking responsibility. This is especially prominent in the Gawain character, and on a more personal level, Axl and Beatrice.
  4. Finally, it’s about life and death. This part contains spoilers. One way of reading the whole novel is as an allegory of the couple’s path to death, and their (in)ability to accept the idea of life without their beloved. That the wife would die first is announced by her mysterious pain, which they both pretend to consider a minor affliction (but clearly know is much more). Death and separation are complicated by their past, which they had avoided thinking about or discussing (this avoidance takes the form of the mist), because their life together was not always happy, though their love endures. The boatman and the old woman they meet early on announce the allegorical meaning of their quest when she tells the tale of her separation from her own husband. The meaning of the island we know they must reach, if it had not been clear earlier, is reiterated at the end, when it is revealed that their son is dead and buried, and yet they hope to see him on this island where everyone must walk alone. The ambiguous ending, where the wife is taken, and the husband, though anxious and upset, walks back to the shore to wait for the boatman, suggests that she has accepted death and believes they will be reunited in the afterlife. He seems to have reluctantly accepted that he must wait his turn, and that it is not yet his time to follow her.

Overall, I admire Ishiguro’s craft. The book seems so simple on the surface, especially as the writing style, in imitation of medieval romances, has a mechanic quality to it. And yet, there is a ton to unpack here. The experience of reading this was very similar to reading a medieval romance: I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it, but I did find it fascinating.


What I read: November 2018

  • Sylvain Neuvel: Sleeping Giants
  • Brittany Cavallaro: The Last of August
  • Mackenzi Lee: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
  • Simone St. James: The Broken Girls
  • Becky Albertalli: The Upside of Unrequited
  • Maureen Johnson: Truly Devious
  • Brittany Cavallaro: A Study in Charlotte
  • Lauren Willig: The English Wife

The Likeness: So Like Its Predecessor

Tana French’s “The Likeness”, the second book in her Dublin Murder Squad series, is the crowd favorite. Told from the perspective of Cassie, a beloved character from the first book, “In the Woods”, the novel makes references to what had happened on the previous investigation, though it does not reveal details. Nonetheless, I would not recommend starting anywhere but at the beginning, with “In the Woods”, because if you’re a very careful reader of mystery, it gives too much away – and it also gives a lot away about the relationships between the characters, which is just as important as the murder.

It’s hard for me to separate these two novels. Tana French’s writing borders on lyrical, and both narrators (Rob in the first book and Cassie in the second) are wonderful, and if I remember Rob correctly, although there is some difference between them, the feel of their narrations is the same. This is in stark contrast to something like Anne Rice’s  “Interview with the Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat” – I adore the first novel, but could not get into the second, because the narrative voice was so jarring. But I digress, as usual.

The plot? A body is found, which looks just like Cassie, a police detective who had been an undercover a few years prior. The murdered woman seems to have been impersonating the identity that Cassie was given as an undercover, so she is sent to resume the dead woman’s life pretending to be her, and try to crack the case from the inside. She spends the rest of the novel hanging out with the victim’s  roommates, trying to figure out which of them, if any, stabbed her. And they work on the house a lot.

For me, one of the most striking aspects of the series so far is the very subtle references to something supernatural being at work. The dead woman is Cassie’s doppelganger, to the point where her closest friends cannot distinguish them. In the first novel, there was something in the woods which borders on the fantastic, and which is never really resolved or directly addressed. What happened in the woods? What happens in the woods? Is there a monster? Is it a literal monster, or a human monster? Is the monster in Rob’s head; could he actually be the monster? So many questions, but they just hover there, unreachable. This is a very unique touch in an otherwise more or less straightforward detective/police procedural/murder mystery type novel. (Not so straightforward: neither book gives you all the answers, which is logical, since they are told from one person’s point of view, and nobody ever has all the answers. If you know this would frustrate you, maybe skip the series – but be forewarned, you would be skipping an extraordinary piece of  fiction)

You may want to know which I prefer, the first or the second novel, and I am in the minority who loved “In the Woods” more. It may be because it was my first encounter with the series, but mostly I thought the mystery was more interesting. I still find myself thinking about that book, and it may be the first mystery I actually re-read just for the pleasure of it. I read “The Likeness” very quickly – perhaps too quickly – and it felt very repetitive. French is not really trying to deliver a mystery as much as she is creating an atmosphere, and she is a master of it. But the atmosphere – a strange nostalgia for relationships and feelings you can only really have at some point between childhood and adulthood – is a repeat of what we get in “In the Woods”. I liked how awfully flawed Rob was, and Cassie, while flawed, was mostly frustrating to me. The woman cannot follow directions, which honestly makes her a terrible undercover. She is solely responsible for everything bad that happens in the book – as was Rob – but I could understand him. I had more trouble relating to Cassie.

This is a bit of a claustrophobic mystery, like Agatha Christie’s are: you know the killer is one of the very few characters you spend all the time with. You’re locked in Cassie’s mind, and you spend most of the time observing these people’s everyday rituals, watch them work on the house, drink and play cards, touch each other lovingly, and, I guess, you’re supposed to be jealous and fall in love with them like Cassie does. It didn’t work on me. In this case, I would’ve preferred more focus on the mystery itself.