Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Extravaganza

Doctor-Who-50thThere’s something really lovely about being involved in a fandom, a special sect of people that understand why a TV show/movie/book is incredibly important and amazing.  There’s something even more wonderful when that fandom is recognized and appreciated by the wider public.

Though Doctor Who has been mainstream in the UK for many years (decades, really), it’s only grown to great prominence in American culture since the newest iteration started with Christopher Eccleston in 2005.  It’s still a bit of an outsider’s club on this side of the Atlantic, but that makes it a little bit more fun, if I’m honest.  But even in the US, the knowledge that the 50th anniversary special was happening this week was everywhere.  Theaters held special simulcasts of the episode, pubs had special nights for Whovians. I’ve heard rumors that a Mini Cooper painted like a TARDIS was spotted nearby.  We got our Google Doodle, though ours came one day later than the google.co.uk version. Is there any greater measure of cultural importance and legitimacy than a Google Doodle?  I think not.

BBC America started their Doctor Who marathon early in the week, and new content was there when I started my weekend.  Though I didn’t learn much from Doctor Who Explained, I really loved An Adventure in Space and Time. This was a made-for-TV movie about the origins of the show, and about the first doctor, William Hartnell.

4482503-high_res-adventures-in-space-and-timeI’ve actually never seen any of the pre-2005 episodes of Doctor Who, so I learned a lot from this movie about the beginnings of the show.  David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, Game of Thrones) plays William Hartnell, and I think he did a superb job.  I also think the whole movie made me very sad.  When I compare William Hartnell’s love of the character and devotion to the show, with Christopher Eccleston’s attitude toward it…I’m forced to think very badly of the latter.

The movie also starred Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, the History Boys) as the first director of the show, and Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife, Doctor Who) as Verity Lambert, my new personal hero.  She had a wardrobe of the most amazing ’60s clothes I’ve seen ever. Way better than on Mad Men. More importantly, she was a kickass feminist, dealing with a bunch of stodgy old men in sweaty tweed suits (the Old Guard).  She fought for Doctor Who, not just because it was her first producer job, but because she grew to love the subject matter and what it could be used to communicate. She forced the BBC staff (from executives, to set designers, to technical staff) to take the show seriously; we owe her a huge thanks.

Jessica-RaineThe movie itself was well-acted and had incredible sets.  A good portion of it took place at the iconic elliptical BBC building:

BBC-Television-Centre-007Probably didn’t take a lot of work to make it look like the 1960s again inside here, though they must have cleaned up since James May & co. drove a motorcycle through the interior.

After the movie, we had the Saturday simulcast to watch.  The 50th Anniversary special, complete with Doctors 10 and 11 (together at last), and John Hurt (Harry Potter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), all playing different iterations of the Doctor:

Doctor-Who-2458109Seeing David Tennant in his brown suit and Converse sneakers again made me literally giddy.  I miss his Doctor so much.  And we got to see Clara, and Rose (but not really), and all of the living actors who’ve played the doctor (sort of…damn you Chris Eccleston).

I thought the special was actually really excellent.  As long as I never think too much about the timey wimey stuff, I will continue to think that.  I have the feeling that the ‘time fissures’ and the Time Lord art won’t stand up to much rational scrutiny, so I will dutifully avoid any such scrutiny. I loved seeing Matt Smith and Clara, I adored seeing David Tennant again, and I thought John Hurt was fabulous.

It also felt really appropriate that we finally get to see the moment of the Doctor’s life that has really defined the show since the 2005 reboot.  The Time War. The moment the Doctor had to decide to kill his own species, in order to save the rest of the universe.

We also got to see the much-talked-about relationship between Ten and Elizabeth I.  Starring Joanna Page (Stacey of Gavin and Stacey) as Elizabeth I.  I thought she was great, although I don’t really think Elizabeth would have had a Welsh accent.

DOCTOR-WHO-50TH-ANNIVERSAR_THE-DAY-OF-THE-DOCTOR_01

I think my only real complaint is that, despite having Billie Piper and David Tennant together again, they don’t get to interact as Rose and the Doctor.  And I was hoping for more of Peter Capaldi as 12 (or he’s really 13?) , more than just a shot of his furrowed eyebrows. I suppose their keeping his costume and his persona under wraps until the actual regeneration happens.

Sometimes, when Doctor Who tries to do something big and important, it can be a bit of a belly flop.  I usually end up enjoying the little, one-off episodes more than the big important two-part season enders.  But this, despite hype and importance, was really fun and lovely and I was just grateful to see David Tennant again.  I think if he’d turned up with the suit and the shoes and the glasses, and read the phone book, I’d be just as thrilled.

I’m ready for the Christmas Special! To which, we now have a short teaser trailer:

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Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.

 

Big Harry Potter news

tumblr_mhzxvzup1o1qcirsjo1_500Kermit is pretty much the only one who can adequately describe how I felt reading the big Harry Potter news this month.  NEW content, NEW movies, from J.K. Rowling.  This isn’t just snippets from Pottermore (though I enjoy those too), this is real new stuff in the same world we all love so much.

Warner Brothers and Rowling announced a new partnership on a ‘series’ of films based upon the adventures of Newt Scamander.  Rowling will write the screenplay for (at least) the first movie, because she wanted to ensure that the story was told correctly.  Which means she has had the whole back story for Newt Scamander in her head for years and years without ever needing to use any of it in a book. Scamander’s name is familiar to HP fans as the author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Fantastic_Beasts_and_Where_to_Find_Them_2009_coverThe book (along with Quidditch Through the Ages) is a Hogwarts textbook published by Rowling for charity.  It’s a nonfiction book discussing the history of the control & classification of magical creatures, and describing the more popular/dangerous ‘beasts’ in the  magical world.

I was never particularly drawn to these nonfiction books, but I did read them both after the news came out.  There’s very little in Fantastic Beasts that gives any hint of the plot of these movies.  JKR says they will take place 70 years before the events in the Harry Potter series, so that means the 1920s.  The action will start in New York, but who knows where it will go from there.  The beasts in the book cover most of the Earth, though (naturally) the majority of them are in Europe.

From the book, we know a little about Newt Scamander.  He was born in 1897, so he’ll be in his 20s during the action of the movies. He is British and was in Hufflepuff house at Hogwarts. He works for the Ministry of Magic in the Department for the Control and Regulation of Magical Creatures. His grandson marries Luna Lovegood, though that event will clearly not be covered in the movies.

I’m so glad that JKR is returning to this world, and I really hope that there are little cameos from established characters.  Dumbledore was alive at the time, and I think she will probably have him turn up at some point.  Jo said that Dumbledore was the character she missed writing the most, and hey here’s another opportunity to write him.

That’s about the only person from the Harry Potter series that could reasonably make an appearance, but there are any number of family members that could show up.  Hogwarts and Diagon Alley and all the familiar places could easily show up on film again, which makes me very happy.  Even more exciting is the possibility we might glimpse some wizarding culture from other countries.  Is there a NYC equivalent of Diagon Alley?  I can only hope so. Undoubtedly, the search for magical beasts won’t take place mostly in cities, but I’m just hoping for a glimpse.

I don’t even care what she includes, I’m just so excited to learn more about this world.  Reading every Harry Potter book has been like looking through a pinhole camera. I get a little bit of information and I have a lot of questions, then I get a little bit more information with the next book, and I have more questions.  Most of them were eventually answered, but I will never reached a point of not wanting to know more.

JKR thanked the new CEO of Warner Brothers for making the whole project possible: “I particularly want to thank Kevin Tsujihara of Warner Bros. for his support in this project, which would not have happened without him. I always said that I would only revisit the wizarding world if I had an idea that I was really excited about and this is it.”

Well, all I can say is that I agree. Thank you, sir, for making this happen!

Jon and Steven

Luther, season 3

Luther-Season-3-Key-ArtThe long-anticipated third season of Luther premiered last week on BBC America.  For some reason, they decided to play one episode per night, so the entire season was done in 1 week. I hate when they do this, but for this show it is particularly difficult to deal with. I couldn’t sleep after the first episode, and I was really upset after episode 3.  To squeeze all that emotion into one week is a lot for me.  I think Luther requires some recovery time, because precidence has shown that he (and we as the audience who implicitly support him as the protagonist) is going to get walloped repeatedly. If no one he loves is murdered in an episode, it’s a good day for John Luther.  He could write a very good version of ‘It was a Good Day’ by Ice Cube.  That’s how shit his life is.  And to live in that world for four nights repeated is a lot to take.

In episodes one and two, he’s chasing a truly disturbing foot-fetish murderer.  A guy who hides under beds–cue me not sleeping.  He also hides in attics under semi-opaque sheets pretending to be a mannequin. And makes cat noises so you go up in the attic to see what your cat has got into.  Then he murders you and your husband, and steals your shoes.  I have an attic and a cat! And shoes! I am still traumatized by this. During episode two, someone uses the phrase ‘extremely muscular vaginas’. Hearing this, I think my face arranged itself in a perfect wide-eyed emoticon expression.  I may have done a comical double-take.  I mean, wtf.

There’s a second case where a man, Ken Barnaby seems to have killed the internet troll who was taking pictures of the Barnaby’s dead daughter and photoshopping them onto porn shots and sending them to the Barnaby.  The world truly weeps for the loss of that guy.  Luther is reluctant to persecute Barnaby, because of his own sense of conscience, and Ripley has to force the investigation to its conclusion.  The truly fun part of this subplot is Barnaby’s attempt to get rid of his own fingerprints. Color me nauseated.

Luther is also dealing with his (as usual) precarious position at work.  He’s being investigated by the British equivalent of Internal Affairs–an un-retired and slightly-obsessed DSU Stark is determined to prove that Luther isn’t just a crooked cop, but a murderer.  Fun fact–Stark is played by David O’Hara, aka Albert Runcorn in the 7th Harry Potter movie. DCI Erin Gray, who used to work with Luther and butted heads with him constantly, is Stark’s right hand woman.  They’re trying to convince DS Ripley to turn on Luther.

ds ripleyBut…come on.  DS Ripley has shown time and time again that he is unfailingly good and unfailingly loyal. He’s the un-touched one among them, and that’s why Luther protects him and cares so much for him. Still, we know Ripley is a good guy, and we know Luther can act like a bad guy to get done what he thinks is right.  The seed of doubt is planted in Luther’s mind, and in our own.

On the rare up-side, he’s met a lovely woman named Mary, who’s surprisingly innocent and normal, and makes him smile.  And be happy?!?  This can’t last, right?

Luther IIIYou won’t be surprised to hear that Luther dispatches with the foot fetish killers, because he’s Luther and he’s the smartest one in the room.

Episodes 3 and 4 deal with a different villain. Tom Marwood is, really, a dark version of Luther himself.  He’s a vigilante killer, specifically going after criminals who have been convicted, but because of flaws in the justice system, are out on parole or free to walk around.  Marwood’s wife was raped and killed years earlier, by a man newly paroled. Marwood goes after pedophiles (or paedophiles, if you’re British) and murderers, truly heinous criminals.  Like Dexter.  Of course, Luther has always walked the line of wanting to enact his own form of justice rather than relying on bureaucracy to get the job done.  But he has to take a stand for due process, and finds himself in the awkward position of having to save the life of a convicted p(a)edophile, after a mob of violent morons comes to watch and ensure the man’s execution.

You know something bad is going to happen from the first few minutes of episode 3.  Luther invites Ripley into his house, to meet Mary.  Luther is happy, talkative, easy-going.  This is new.  And ominous.  Later, Luther tells Ripley he should have been promoted long ago, because he’s capable and good at his job.  Oh no.  No no no.

I won’t spoil anything specific, but like I say, it’s obvious from the first moments of that episode that something is going to happen. This show had never allowed Luther to be happy, and he’ll be severely punished for this moment of bliss.  That’s just the way this universe works.

I will say that the moment at the end of episode 3 is when Tom Marwood stops being a vigilante out for justice and becomes just a killer.  A killer because he likes it and he can’t stop.  He’s become everything he hates, but instead of facing it he decides to blame it all on Luther, and to go after everyone Luther cares for.

Episode 4 is really suspenseful, with all the different plots coming to a head at once.  Alice re-emerges.  I like Alice–I don’t want her as a mate, but she’s a great character to watch–to help Luther get out of his current jam.

At the very end, in the very last scene, Luther takes off his signature grey coat and drops it into the Thames.  It occurred to me, just then, how much of the superhero model the show follows.  Batman, especially.  Luther always lives in the shadows, always surrounded by sadness, so that he can try to keep it light and bright for others.  Someone has to get into the mud to keep the rest of us clean, according to this universe.  At the end, though, he’s had enough.  He takes off his cape and he leaves it behind.  There are talks to bring Luther to the big screen, so I wonder what will bring him back into the fray.  Superheroes always try to escape their shit lives, but they have to come back to save someone/something they love.  They can’t live with the guilt of ignoring the idea that they could make a difference.

Luther is one of those shows, like Dexter, that is engrossing and disturbing and bleak. You’re in the trenches with this really morally-questionable, but charismatic, character.  You implicitly trust his decisions because he’s your protagonist, and the more you watch the less you question what he’s doing.  With Luther, we take his side because he is going up against the most terrifying monsters you can imagine.  He’s a saint, comparatively.  But when you step away and think about what he does, and how he breaks the rules and justifies his actions by always being right about whodunnit, it’s really terrifying. The ending especially made me sit back and say…wait a minute.  Our hero just wandered off to start a life with a murderous sociopath.  What does that say about him? What does it say about me?!

Even though Luther always makes me feel a bit squiffy about my own ethics, I will keep watching it because it is so compelling.  Season 3 was no exception.

Sports vs Sport – UK & US Athletics

soccer-vs-football

When people think of me, they think of sports, right?  Ok, no, they don’t. I am the least sporty person in the world.  But after seeing the 300th commercial for the beginning of the English Premier League on American TV, I thought I might dip my feet in the water and see what all of this nonsense is about.  I’ve been exposed to American sports for my entire life, and have been thoroughly bored and annoyed by them for that same length of time.  But I don’t actually know much about British sport, so I may as well give it a small chance, in case football (soccer) really is so fabulous.  Maybe British sport is just better?  Anything is possible. So let’s discuss the differences. But please excuse in advance all the mistakes of vocabulary I am going to make during this post.  I can barely remember the proper terms for American sports, so if I say field when I mean pitch, do not murder me via angry comments. This entire post is written with tongue firmly placed in cheek, so don’t take it too seriously. Be gentle.

Sport vs Sports- Linguistic differences are so strange sometimes.  In the UK, you play sport or you watch sport.  In the US, you play sports or watch sports.  Where did the s go/come from?  I suspect it was taken off sports so that it could be added to maths.  

Another linguistic fun fact: As much as Brits decry us for saying ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football’, soccer was the original term and it was British in origin.  Soccer was called ‘association football’, to distinguish it from other types of ‘football’ that were played at the time (including Rugby–then called Rugger).  Association football was shortened to Assoccer, and then just soccer. So, it’s not an American thing.  Legend has it an Oxford student coined the term in 1863. That being said, football makes more sense for a sport where you are only allowed to use your feet than it does for our US football, where you primarily use your hands.

And to confuse everyone even more, the Brits often shorten football to ‘footy’, but the Australians call Rugby footy.  How anyone has any idea what game they’re playing is beyond me.  But this blog is mostly about the UK, so I’m not going to delve into Aussie sports now.

In the UK, there are two sports that are in the upper-echelons of popularity: Rugby Union and Association Football (soccer). Of those two, Football is the clear favorite, but Rugby is quite popular in certain geographical areas.

Rugby is very similar to American football, with one big big difference:

Rugby padsIt’s crazy dangerous. At least 110 players have been paralyzed during a game.  There are arguments to be made that all the padding US Football players wear adds to the amount of force that comes crashing down on opponents, but I’d still rather have a helmet if it was me.

The time of the games is different as well.  American football games last approximately 500 million hoursbut a big chunk of that is resetting and stopped time.  In Rugby, they don’t stop the clock unless someone’s injured and unresponsive. It’s a lot more fast-paced, and there’s a longer playing time.  That means leaner, meaner, faster guys. Much faster than American defensive players, who generally run 5-10 feet and then bash into someone with all of their weight.  It’s a different skill set.  To be honest, I’m not interested in either sport.

Other sports in the top 5 include Cricket, Tennis, and something Wikipedia refers to as Athletics. I believe this is what we would call Track & Field.  But really, if you’re talking UK Sport, you’re talking about football.  Unless you’re me, then you’re talking about Quidditch.

So let’s talk soccer/football. There are some things that make it recognizably awesome and the pinnacle of athleticism.  I can’t believe some of the crazy kicks and headbutts they do to get the ball headed toward the correct goal.  No American sport has that kind of gymnastics (except maybe gymnastics). And the crazy amount of running?  Your average baseball player barely runs during a game, your average American football player might run a little over a mile during a game. Compare that to the 7-8 miles a soccer player runs during a match, and you see why they all look like Adonis.

On the other hand, there’s a large percentage of games that end with a score of 0-0, and that sounds pretty boring to a spectator. No wonder they get so excited when a goal finally happens.

The UK version of the NFL/NBA/etc. is the Premier League. For the first time (ever), anyone in American watch any match in the season.  They will be airing the big matches on NBC sports, and then live streaming the rest on their website.  Apparently we have better access to the entire league’s games than the Brits do.  Perfect time for a novice like me to get started with footy. They even have several resources to pick your club and charming commercials with Jason Sudeikis. The most important thing about picking your team is that you can never change it. This is a cardinal offense and I believe they still punish you with a day in the stocks in any proper English village.

Remember that scene in Harry Potter when Harry is trying to talk to Cho, and Ron interrupts to inquire (very loudly and bluntly) whether Cho has always been a fan of the Tutshill Tornadoes, or if she just started supporting them since they began winning.  Lucky for Cho, she’d been supporting them since she was six, or she would have been in trouble.  Same principle applies to Premier League clubs. Of course, if you live in the UK, geography determines a lot of who you support, but we don’t have that luxury here.  It’s a big decision, and one I’ve taken quite seriously.

I’ve decided to support West Ham.  It’s the only football club mentioned in Harry Potter, so that was …pretty much my whole decision-making process.  Other things I know about West Ham: Smithy from Gavin and Stacey supports West Ham.  That’s good(ish).  Green Street Hooligans, a terrible Elijah Wood movie, was based on West Ham fans.  That’s really bad!  Their nickname is the Hammers.  I’m Switzerland on that one. West Ham’s celebrity fans include John Cleese and Barack Obama.  Good.  They also include Rod Stewart and Katy Perry.  Not as good.  Yep, that’s all I know about my chosen team.  I am such a sports fan.  Wait, I also know that they’re not that good.  I’m fine with that, since I prefer to support underdogs.  I could never support Man U.  It’s clearly the Yankees of the Premier League. Also, while I’m comparing football to baseball, Arsenal is clearly the Red Sox. Remember that Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie, Fever Pitch?

fever_pitch_01About the guy who was obsessed with the Red Sox?  Well, it was originally a British movie (with Colin Firth) about a guy obsessed with Arsenal.  So, if you’re a Red Sox fan, Arsenal is your team.

If you’re more inclined to back a winner than I am, here’s an article about the top 5 most-likely winners (Arsenal included). Pick one of these and you will have a good chance.

If you’re not quite as informed about football as I clearly am, the IT Crowd has taught me how to fake it.  Just visit bluffball.co.uk for your best tips on how to sound like you know something about football.

The most important lessons include: If Arsenal is playing, you can always say ‘the problem with Arsenal is they think they can just walk it in’.  And, start every football conversation with ‘did you see that ludicrous display last night?’  That lets people know that you are an expert.

So, I have a team and some basic vocab for those inevitable water cooler conversations.  What else do I need? Some basic knowledge of the sport?  Well, I’ve seen Bend it Like Beckham.  Done. I know all about the offside rule: The French Mustard has to be between the teriyaki sauce and the sea salt.

If you haven’t seen BiLB, and you need the most basic primer about soccer in the history of the world, here’s a website designed to help grandparents understand this newfangled sport all the suburban kids are playing.

Also, it’s important to know how the league works. The top 20 teams are in the Premier League, but the bottom 3 of that 20 are ‘relegated down’.  Below the premier league are other leagues of middling and lower-level.  We don’t really have anything like that in the US. It would be like if the White Sox did so badly that they were no longer Major League and were ‘relegated down’ to AAA baseball. The good part about this is if your team is not so great, they still have some nail biter matches later in the season, as they might be fighting to keep their place in a specific part of the hierarchy.

The top 4 spots in the Premier League qualify for the European Champions league, so you get a lot of international competition that we also don’t have here.  And then every four years, you have the  World Cup.  I watched the last World Cup, and my only memories of it are drowned out by the sound of vuvuzelas.  God those were awful. Anyway, the next World Cup is next year.  To turn to yet another Harry Potter reference, it’s very similar to the Quidditch World Cup.  Countries compete, so England tends to bring together its best players from professional teams, as does Italy, Spain, etc.

The amazing thing about soccer is that everyone plays it. it’s the main sport in almost every country except America.  So you can have these massive Olympic-like events where the best players in different countries are competing against one another.  I think that’s awesome. Far better than the Super Bowl, for my money.

The Premier League has a really long season.  I mean, I feel like all sports seasons in the US are too long.  NFL Football is starting again soon. Already?  But the Premier League goes from August to May.  That’s crazy long.  No wonder they’re all in such good shape. Anyway, I can’t guarantee I will be a major soccer fan by the end of the season, or that I will still be watching by then.  I’m not a sports person, by nature.  But, I’m giving it a try, and that’s…more than I would normally do. You should too.

If you think this was a terrible post about sports, from a typical ignorant American, then…you’ve got a point. But! I’m not representative of American soccer fans, and it’s not just Americans who don’t know about international sports.  Take, for example, this video of a (brilliant) Irishman commentating Olympic sailing, and then call me uninformed.

Or take heart that I’m just as ignorant about American sports as all other kinds.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by JK Rowling

jk-rowling-cuckoos-calling-reviewI’m not ashamed to admit that I purchased this book immediately after I heard the news that it was secretly written by JKR.  What on earth else would you expect of me?

I understand why she would publish a book without her name attached to it.  Imagine the incredible pressure she’s under every time she wants to publish a book. Every pseudo-intellectual wants to prove that she (and that Harry Potter) doesn’t deserve so much praise because it’s not Proust.  Every Harry Potter fan inevitably compares all her other work to Harry Potter.  For this book in particular, using not just a pen name, but the pen name of a male author, makes sense.  It’s a male dominated genre, and her protagonist is a pretty butch dude.  Reading 2 different reviews compare him to Hagrid and Alastor Moody (though I see absolutely no similarities) was enough to make me understand why she wanted to be anonymous.  I’m sort of glad she didn’t stay anonymous, though, because I want to read whatever she writes and I’m glad I got to read this.

This sort of mass market crime fiction isn’t really my genre of choice, I’ll say that first.  I’ve read a few Agatha Christie, some of Poe and Conan Doyle’s detective stories, but they are all firmly ensconced in the ‘period fiction’ world and have little in common with your average James Patterson or …I can’t even think of another one. Is Lillian Jackson Braun still putting out those Cat Who detective books?

So, I’m not up on the genre.  But if I look back to Harry Potter, there was a lot of mystery.  And I was almost always fooled.  I remember I spent a good time yelling at everyone while reading Chamber of Secrets, because obviously it was Percy all along!!! Oh wait… And there were always threats of undercover agents and false identities (Mad-Eye Moody, Peter Pettigrew), and just general turncoats (Quirrell, Pettigrew again).  I never saw any of it coming.  JKR is really great at red herrings and distractors, so this sort of book is right up her alley.

The plot of The Cuckoo’s Calling centers around Cormoran Strike, a private detective in London, who has just broken up with his fiance and has his last few dollars sunk into his failing business.  A second protagonist is Robin, his temporary assistant from Yorkshire, who has always wanted to solve mysteries.  Strike gets a case from John Bristow, who grew up in the same small town as Strike.  Bristow wants Strike to look into the apparent suicide of his adoptive sister Lula, who was an up-and-coming model and tabloid favorite before she jumped out of her apartment window to her death.  Bristow is convinced it was murder, despite Lula’s history of bipolar disorder and messy relationships with drug-users. Suspects include her drug-addicted on/off boyfriend, her fashion industry friends, family, her biological parents, her neighbors.

In many ways, it’s your typical mystery novel.  Private detective with personal and financial problems, a seedy and mysterious backstory, convenient police and street connections used to acquire delicate information.  He talks to everyone who knew Lula, he runs down small clues and keeps notebooks of information.  He doesn’t share much with the reader about his thought process.  We see him ask questions, but he keeps his thoughts to himself about their possible interpretations.  He shares no theories, even with Robin. Sometimes it’s a little too much–it’s as if the characters know they shouldn’t give away too much and ruin the fun for the reader–but it’s part of the genre.  The author has to give you just enough that you have a decent chance of guessing correctly, but not so much that you can actually figure out the solution.  I think while I was reading it, the correct villain did occur to me but every other possible combination of perpetrator and motive also occurred to me.

In the end, the ‘who’ and ‘why’ reveal both surprised me and didn’t.  The thought had occurred to me, but I had dismissed it because it made no sense.  I still feel it doesn’t make tons of sense, and that is a little irritating. But I often find that, after a killer is revealed, I don’t feel satisfied by the explanation given, so this may not be entirely the fault of the novelist.  I may just find it hard to accept that so little is required to kill someone.

JKR has already announced a sequel that is written and ready to be published next year.  I will continue to read whatever she writes; that’s a given.  If this was written by someone else, it’s unlikely I would have read it in the first place–I had certainly never heard of it before the day she was ‘outed’ on Twitter.  I enjoyed the book enough to say I will enjoy the sequel. It was certainly much less bleak than A Casual Vacancy. For its genre, the book is enjoyable and well done.  Even though the genre isn’t really my thing, I still liked reading it.

And yet.  As much as I understand why JKR would want feedback on her writing from a position of anonymity, and as much as I comprehend her desire to write different things as she matures as human and as writer…I can’t help but wish.  I liked A Casual Vacancy, and I’d venture to say I liked Cuckoo’s Calling a bit more, but…  I’ll just come out and say it.  It’s no Harry Potter.

One of the most spectacular things about JKR’s writing, and certainly the most important part of her talent for storytelling is her ability to imagine and build worlds full of wonder and beauty and fate and everything we wish was plentiful on Earth, but is somewhat scarce in reality.  She creates amazing worlds that I could spend the rest of my life occupying.  Give me a cottage in Hogsmeade and I’m set for life. I’ll work at Flourish & Blotts and have a wand with unicorn hair and I’ll be happy.

Having her eschew the work of imagination and the worlds of fantasy and magic, to exist in the grim and gray reality that we all occupy, is unsatisfying for me.  It’s unsatisfying because she’s not utilizing a large part of what made her incredibly successful.  Like watching Picasso give up paints and work with washable Crayola markers. Worse, it’s like watching Dali color only in the lines in a coloring book. One of the super-conservative Christian coloring books my grandmother used to give me.

It’s also unsatisfying because I, as a reader, would just rather spend my time at Hogwarts, or the Ministry of Magic, or 12 Grimmauld Place. I enjoyed this book.  But that enjoyment is about .000002% of the enjoyment I would get out of a new Harry Potter short story.  Even a poem.  Even a Haiku!  So it will always be a bit of a let-down, a bit unsaturated, comparatively.

July 31st and my life with Harry Potter

I was planning to do a post on the Royal Baby today, but I care far more for another British boy, and it being July 31st, I really would rather talk about him.

Happy Birthday Harry Potter!

Happy Birthday HarryAs Joyce fans line up to celebrate Bloomsday every June 16th, Harry Potter fans continue to note and celebrate Harry’s Birthday every year.  It has been over 6 years since the final book was released, but the fandom is alive and well.  Perhaps not as active as they were back in the heyday, but still there nonetheless. There’s a local fish & chip shop here doing a 2 night HP trivia competition. There are special performances of HP-related music and plays in NYC, London, LA tonight.

It should also be noted that J.K. Rowling’s birthday is also July 31st, so Happy Birthday, Jo!

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the first book’s release, Scholastic has commissioned new paperback editions with new artwork. They just released the final cover image to celebrate today.

Deathly Hallows

So what is it about this book series that has an enduring hold on people? Who better to answer this question than me? I reread these books every year at Christmas. I would say I’ve read the first four books maybe 30 times (each).  I thought I would take today to share a short account of the difference these books made in my life.

My first exposure to Harry Potter was actually through the first movie.  There I was, firmly entrenched in the nadir of my life’s journey.

My mother died when I was 15, and that event had put me on a strange course in life, and led me to a pretty crippling bout with depression.  My aunt and uncle were appointed my guardians (sound at all familiar?), and they were the first people to ever make it clear to me that I was not good enough as I was.  They made me really feel the need for their approval, and (simultaneously) the complete absence of it.  I went to a university I didn’t care for in an attempt to please them, but my perilous emotional state made excelling (or even passing my classes) a bleak proposition.  They controlled the money, so as long as I was in school, I was under their control. So I left university halfway through my second year. I viewed this as temporary; I never wanted to not finish my degree. But life sort of spiraled after that.

So at 20, I was to be found living with a boyfriend who cheated on me, working two jobs to pay my bills, not reading or writing anymore (two activities that had truly defined my childhood), eating $1 frozen meals 3 times a day every day, wasting my entire life.  It was the worst my life has ever been, and I’m pretty confident the worst my life will ever be. Depression is a hell of a thing for making you hopeless and bleak and like you’ll never be cheerful again.

Then I went to see this movie everyone was talking about. I didn’t know anything about the story, I didn’t even know it was about magic.  I didn’t know Harry was a wizard until Harry knew.  I remember that exact moment, and a sense of wonder that broke through the haze of my own desolate mind.  Something literally clicked in my brain, and I remembered the amazing quality that stories have to take you out of your own experience and put you somewhere better.

I couldn’t afford to buy the books, as you might have guessed by the two jobs, $1 meals bit mentioned above.  The next day, during my lunch break, I walked to Barnes & Noble and sat myself down in the kid’s section and started to read.  I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, so I actually skipped the first book and started the second right away.  I read every day on my lunch break–thank you B&N for not throwing me out–even though it was the holiday season at the Mall of America, and the crowds made me almost literally ill.

The only thing I asked for Christmas was the (then) 4 Harry Potter books.  I remember my grandmother asked me if I wanted to wait until they came out in paperback.  I laughed.  I didn’t want to wait until Christmas, let alone longer.

My family obliged, thank god.  I finished all four books in less than two weeks–impressive when you consider that I didn’t get holiday time off from either job.  Then I read them again.  And again.

At first, it was an escape.  Nothing more, really.  I could be completely immersed in a different world.  I loved the idea of fate, the humor, the fact that every new chapter could mean a totally unexpected event (I remember gasping at Ron’s flying car, and when I got to Peter Pettigrew unmasked as Scabbers, I actually turned back the pages to see if I’d read it wrong.). As an escape, it worked. I wasn’t depressed anymore; no time for depression when you have an obsession.

Over time, I found communities of other Harry Potter fans.  I found great friends (online, but still) to share this passion with. It’s a nerdy period of my life, with nerd keywords like fanfiction, chat room, role playing.  It’s also the period in my life when I found my my joie de vivre. I found my passion again. For reading, for writing, for all the things about the written word and the process of storytelling that have been so important to me since.  Not only did I read and reread Harry Potter, and read and write Harry Potter fanfiction, but I started reading again full stop. I read Jane Austen, Tolkien, Vonnegut, the Brontes, Nabokov, Dickens, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Bell Jar, Fahrenheit 451, and numerous other books that further expanded and changed my world view.  It was this period in my life that defined who I became as an adult.

My first trip to New York City came when I wanted to see J.K. Rowling speak, so she’s responsible for that too. For my first views of the Empire State Building, Washington Square Park, my first proper English beans on toast, my first subway trip.

All the reading and writing also directly led to me going back to school; this time as an English major.  It took me a long time to get back to a university that I liked, but once I did it I really did it right. I graduated with honors from one of the top 5 universities in the country. Harry Potter was the subject of my application essay.

The books led me to resume my own writing habit, and I’m now 65,000 words into my first novel.  When I finish it, I’ll know that Harry Potter led me to that moment as well.

The books led me back into university, but they also led me to study abroad in London–the best 6 months of my entire life. During that time in the UK, I saw 10 countries, 11 plays, approximately 20 museums and 15 churches, participated in a two week program backstage at the Globe Theatre, and got to go inside the Gringott’s Building (across the street from my uni.).

australia house

In fact, Harry Potter led me to my entire obsession with British culture, so it also led to this blog.  It has made an absolutely momentous impact on my life, and has shaped how I am and who I am today. No matter how long I live or how much I change in the course of my life, nothing is going to change how I feel about these books.  They saved my life.  Gave me a life worth living.

So Happy Birthday Harry, Happy Birthday Jo, and thank you both.