Tag Archives: J.K. Rowling

The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling

thesilkwormYep, another JKR mystery novel, written under the nom de plume of Robert Galbraith. Her main character, Cormoran Strike, continues his work as a private detective around London.  Though his usual cases involve the shady sides of the capital, he’s gained a bit of fame since the last book, following the Lulu Landry case. He also continues to work with Robin, his temporary-turned-permanent assistant, who is smart and very eager to learn about the business.

The Silkworm takes Strike and Robin into the publishing industry for a case, which is very interesting to me.  And obviously it’s an industry of which JKR has a unique (not insider, not totally outsider) viewpoint.

Strike is approached by a woman whose unfaithful, egotistical, mediocre husband is missing. He’s just submitted his newest novel, and Strike soon learns that this novel contains enough that is slanderous and hideous to make almost all of his friends and associates want to hurt or kill him.  It’s a long list of suspects.

And she takes us all through the publishing industry.  From the old-school agents with smoker’s cough and very little profits, up to the slick publishing houses in Soho. Owen Quine, the missing man, showed promise early on, but hasn’t impressed anyone in the industry for a while. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Fancourt is a literary darling, akin to Will Self or Salman Rushdie.  He is egotistical and pompous, as you might expect.

JKR’s tour of the publishing industry is not particularly flattering, but probably fairly accurate. Cormoran’s search for the killer (yeah, it turns into a murder investigation) is hindered by the fact that almost everyone seems to have a reason to have killed him. He was a pretty shit person, and nearly everyone hated him.

These books are not challenging to read, but they are fun. JKR has a good mix of the methodical approach to solving a mystery, and a leap of intuition that takes Strike to the solution. I like Strike and Robin, though I do find myself comparing them to Harry Potter characters.  I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same amount of affection for anyone in these books as I do for even minor characters in Harry Potter. But that’s true for almost every book that’s not Harry Potter.

My only real complaint about these books is that there were a few too many characters. I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, particularly when most of them are involved in the same industry. But, on the other hand, we learned more about Robin and Cormoran, and I continue to like them both and want to learn more about them. On the other hand, I really hope that they don’t end up together.

My other complaint isn’t a real complaint, just a …preference.  I’d rather she as writing more in the Harry Potter universe.  I like reading these books; I liked this one even more than the last one.  But…it’s not Harry Potter. I believe I said the same thing when I reviewed The Cuckoo’s Calling. But if you’re looking for a light and quick read, this is a much better choice than Dan Brown or …whoever else people read when they want quick stuff.

The books of Jasper Fforde

fforde_setI just finished reading yet another Jasper Fforde book, I think the 9th one I’ve read.  While not a household name, Fforde has a very devoted following among certain sects of peculiar readers.  The sort of people who can read Bronte and Dickens, then switch over to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett without batting an eye. His books are often re-workings of classic stories, fairytales, even nursery rhymes. He has no fear when it comes to taking well-known characters and stories, and changing them.  It’s the sort of thing that might be posted on a fanfiction website in a strange corner of the internet, if it weren’t actually in book form.

While not Nabokov or Proust, Fforde has a few qualities that make his books extremely interesting and very different from what you normally find on the bookshelf.  For one thing, he’s a world-builder.  Like J.K. Rowling, he can introduce a new set of rules and parameters, a new way of looking at a familiar place. There are always rules to his worlds, and they make sense in your brain.  Suddenly, you begin to think it could all be a possibility, the same way you think, maybe if you stand in the right place in King’s Cross, you can see someone disappear into Platform 9 3/4.  His most famous character, Thursday Next, becomes part of a police force that operates inside books.  Jurisfiction, it’s called.  Thursday can travel inside books, right into Netherfield or Manderley or Thornfield Hall.  Of course, if I had this ability, it would be straight to Hogsmeade for me.  But I digress.  Fforde is very good at establishing these worlds, their rules. Just strange and nonsensical enough to be new and exciting, just familiar and rational enough to make it relatable. Fictional characters can easily jump from their own books to visit others.  But if someone is reading their book, they have to stay put and play their parts.  Apparently, a 1st person story is much harder on the protagonist, since it demands that his/her words, actions, and thoughts match those written in the book. A 3rd person story allows the characters much more freedom. It’s like an acting job they can never quit, in that sense.  Very interesting way to think about it.

Thursday Next has starred in 7 books so far: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot. During that time, she alters the ending of Jane Eyre, her brother Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes brother, and Thursday spends some time in a half-written, long-forgotten novel, stored in the Well of Lost Plots, inside the ‘Great Library’, where all the books are stored.

Another series Fforde has written/is writing, is called the Nursery Crime series.

148809A detective named Jack Spratt (who could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean) investigates the deaths of nursery rhyme characters. His first case, called The Big Over Easy is the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty, who took a fall. His next case involves the death of Goldilocks, and is called The Fourth Bear.

These plots sort of mirror the Thursday Next series, delving into the world of fictional characters and finding new ways to look at old stories.

The book I just finished was called Shades of Grey. Not to be confused, ever, with 50 Shades of Grey. This book takes place in a world where human beings can only see one color, rather than the entire spectrum. The social hierarchy is entirely dependent upon what you can see.  Purples rule the roost, because they fall at the good end of the Roy G Biv color spectrum.

shadesofgreyGreys are colorblind, and are the serfs of this society.  The society is also very 1984, with a pretty serious, if totally nonsensical, set of rules. No new spoons can ever be made–that’s probably the weirdest one. No one can marry a complimentary color (red/green), I believe because of the fear of any offspring being Browns.

Fforde’s other enduring quality is his humorous turn of phrase.  It reminds me of Douglas Adams, but not quite as wonderfully strange–but no one is quite as wonderfully strange as Douglas Adams. He does have a quirky way of looking at the world.  Here are a few quotes from his books:

Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.

there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.

the Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor

In my opinion, the key to enjoying a Fforde book is a pretty extensive knowledge of literature in general.  These books were written for book lovers.  If you can’t appreciate a reference to Miss Havisham’s yellowed wedding gown or understand why Heathcliff won the ‘Most Troubled Romantic Lead’ award without some googling, you won’t get these books. They aren’t for you.  They’re for people who would, let’s just be honest, prefer to live in the world of a book than to live anywhere else. Shades of Grey doesn’t rely as heavily on that sort of book knowledge, which might make it easier for a beginner Fforde fan to get into.  On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, partially because there weren’t so many winks and nods I felt pleased to understand.

I mentioned the adoring Fforde ffans, yes?  They’ve started a quasi-yearly event in Swindon (Thursday Next’s home, near London), called the Fforde Ffiesta. Fforde shows up and gives readings, but mostly people re-enact strange customs from his books. Favorites include ‘Spot the Lobster’, ‘Celebrity Name that Fruit’, and speed reading of Hamlet. I’m not quite that extreme (look, if I’m going all the way to the UK, I’m not going to go to Swindon), but I think it’s all quite lovely that people a-read his books, b-like his books, and c-embrace the strangeness of his imagined worlds so fully that they want to make it real.  As someone with a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf, I can comprehend that idea all too well.

 

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

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.

The other British Holidays

In December, I did a post on British Christmas traditions and Boxing Day.  Since this week was St. George’s Day, I thought I might explain some of the other popular (and less popular) holidays celebrated in the UK.   In addition to holidays we also celebrate in the US, like Halloween and Easter, there are a number of uniquely British holidays that we would be hard pressed to understand on this side of the pond. Cause what the fuck is Guy Fawkes Day, right?

gfday

Guy Fawkes Day is also called Bonfire Night, and falls on November 5th each year.  The holiday commemorates the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ you may (but probably won’t) remember from history class. Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605.  He and his co-criminals wanted to kill King James I and install a Catholic king. The holiday started with people celebrating James’ survival by lighting bonfires. It has evolved in the past 400 years, but often featured the burning of effigies. Effigies of Guy Fawkes were obviously the most popular,

Lewes_Bonfire,_Guy_Fawkes_effigy

but people also burned effigies of the pope and the devil, making it a pretty anti-Catholic holiday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Children would usually make the Guy effigies and then collect money from neighbors (I’m unclear on why they deserved money, but for an enterprising child I’m sure it was a good deal). The holiday declined in popularity in the late 19th century, and in the 20th became more of Firework Night. One assumes that throughout the centuries, it has also been a holiday that involved heavy drinking.  But it’s mostly a holiday in decline, having lost all meaning with respect to government or religion.  One exception is Lewes, which has the (arguably) largest Bonfire Night celebration in Great Britain.

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Saint George's DaySaint George is the patron saint of England, so this is a holiday really only celebrated in England. It falls on April 23rd each year.  His flag, the white background and the red cross is the flag of England as well. (If you’re confused right now, I’ll help you by telling you that the Union Jack is the flag of the UK). The myth says that St. George (presumably known just as George when he was alive) was a Roman soldier in the 3rd century. As a Christian, he protested the Roman empire’s persecution of his faith, earning him some enemies in Rome and he was beheaded in 303 AD. Some time before his beheading, he slayed a dragon that was terrorizing a village in modern-day Libya. Since he never visited England, I’m a little unsure why he is the patron saint of that country, but he is also the patron saint of a lot of other countries and regions, as well as scouting, soldiers, archers, etc. etc.  Those patron saints are busy people. St. George, because he was a famous soldier, became a figure of admiration for European knights during the age of chivalry, and I think that’s how St. George was adopted as the patron saint of a country he’d never visited.

St. George’s day isn’t really ‘celebrated’ in England.  People might have a rose in their button-hole. Businesses might fly the flag of St. George. One website suggested excellent ways to celebrate might include ‘eating fish and chips’ and ‘going on a pub crawl’.  As far as I can tell, that’s how England celebrates days that end in y. People don’t even have the day off work, unfortunately. There are events for children, reenacting the story of St. George and the dragon, but not much more.  There has been a movement in recent years to make it a national holiday, and to bring it back as a big part of English culture, but I’m not certain they’ll come to much.

If you are going to choose a holiday to celebrate on April 23rd, I would celebrate Shakespeare’s Birthday. Shakespeare was actually English, for one thing, and he was far more significant than St. George to the English identity and legacy.

May Day UKNext week, May will begin, and with it, May Day!
I remember being somewhat aware of this holiday growing up in the US, but I’ve never actually seen a maypole.  In the UK, they do dance around the maypole, covering it with ribbons.  They also engage in something called Morris Dancing, which seems to involve black-face.  I’ll pass on that. People dress up like weirdos, play the accordion, and dance around with black faces.

Morris DancerThe racially insensitive face paint doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary, but looking like an idiot is clearly integral to the celebration. We have something similar here in Philadelphia, called the Mummer’s parade.

May Day, like Halloween, has its roots in Pagan traditions, and unofficially celebrates the beginning of good weather.  I like it. I think the spirit of it is similar to our Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of what we think of as summer. It is a national bank holiday in the UK, so no work! Yay! I would venture to guess that most people don’t engage in the celebrations the holiday was made for, but do take the long weekend to spend time outdoors and enjoy the spring.  I was in London for one of the nicest spring seasons they’ve had in a long time, so my experience is not perhaps representative, but I can say that warm days in London are worth more than any weather in any other place on earth.  If you don’t believe me, go sit in Hyde Park or along the Victoria Embankment on a sunny day.

The UK has a number of other ‘bank holidays’, meaning businesses are closed and few people work, that don’t have any inherent traditions attached to them.  The Spring bank holiday is the last week of May, the late Summer bank holiday is in August, and sometimes there are others for special occasions (the royal wedding in 2011, the jubilee in 2012).  These are pretty similar to our Memorial and Labor day holidays.  I think I like secular holidays best.  No haughty traditions, no need to see relatives if you don’t care to.  Just a day off work to do with as you like.

Remembrance Day is one of the more somber holiday on the UK calendar. Remembrance DayCommemorated on November 11th each year (but often celebrated on the Sunday nearest that date), it marks the armistice that ended World War I.  In reality, after so many other wars since 1918, the day becomes a catch-all for honoring service men and women who died during all the wars and skirmishes since that date.  People wear poppies in their lapels and wreaths are laid at the many war memorials throughout the UK.  One thing I noticed in my travels is that every small village has a monument listing the men they lost at war.  It’s sort of lovely and humbling to see them all, and think of how those deaths would have impacted the people they left behind–especially in small villages that must have been even smaller 100 years ago.

A more light-hearted ‘holiday’ is Red Nose Day.  I like this one.  Comic Relief is a charity that organizes Red Nose Day. There are lots of entertainers and local events to get donations, in addition to a national telethon. Whenever we have charity events in the US, we get celebrities to sing patriotic songs about suffering and overcoming adversity.  In the UK, they get them to make us laugh, and they do it every year.  I like that. J.K. Rowling’s two Hogwarts ‘textbooks’ (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) were both written for Red Nose Day.

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So, thank you Comic Relief. If you’re wondering, it’s called Red Nose Day because they sell red noses for you to wear at shops for donations to the charity.

This year’s Red Nose Day brought David Brent into the spotlight again for the first time in 10 years.  Apparently, he’s a music agent now representing a young rapper.

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You may notice that there’s no national holiday for England or for the UK, the way we celebrate July 4th. St. George’s day is the closest they have.  N. Ireland celebrates St. Patrick’s day, and Wales celebrates St. David’s day as almost national holidays. A time to celebrate their unique identity within the UK. Similarly, Scotland has St. Andrew’s day. England, though, does not have a firm origin story around which to rally at a specific time.  And if you think about it, it is impossible to say when England began to be England and ceased to be Briton.  The Romans invaded in the 1st century AD (CE), but the area was already occupied by native Britons.  Those people were gradually pushed further and further west, and are most closely related to the modern Welsh.  After the Romans left, there were the waves and waves of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions.  England is named after the Anglo-Saxons, so did it become England at that point? You could argue that when England became a unified country is a date to be celebrated.  ‘Edgar the Peaceful’ united the country in the 10th century…and then it was promptly and thoroughly invaded, first by Danish vikings, then by William the Conqueror in 1066 AD.  Much of modern British tradition stems from William’s rule (coronation at Westminster abbey, for example) rather than from Edgar’s influence.  So the whole thing is a big ole confusing mess.  I suppose they could just pick a day, but that doesn’t quite have the same significance as our 4th of July, or other national holidays more closely related to a great story of overcoming oppression. Then again, our traditions dictate we mark this great date by having my idiot neighbors set off amateur fireworks in the parking lot across the street and everyone eating dead animals while sitting on picnic tables.  Not to mention, the Declaration of Independence was actually signed in the fall of 1776; John Hancock didn’t sign until November.
So, all holidays are utterly removed from the significance of the original day, and we should all feel free to celebrate whatever we like whenever we like. On that note, I’d better get ready to celebrate International Tuba Day next week!

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Well, we now all know that my predictions (based entirely on rumor) from earlier in the year were completely wrong. This was, most certainly, not a crime novel.  I struggle to categorize it actually, except that it was very definitely adult.  More on that later.

The New Yorker did a (long) piece on JKR and the new book last week. They called it Mugglemarch, which is an obvious combination of Muggles and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I wasn’t crazy about the article, but that’s not really important. The name stuck with me. I read Middlemarch last year.  It’s considered a true classic, and is the most famous of George Eliot novels.  I have to say I didn’t love it, and even though it’s considered a classic I haven’t met anyone else who has actually read the thing.  Assuming you haven’t either, here’s a very brief description–Middlemarch follows the lives, marriages, and fortunes of a large ensemble of characters, all of whom live in the eponymous town.  There is room in the narrative for the poor and ignorant, for the wealthy and intolerable, and, mostly, for the middle classes.  There are lots of interweaving plots and themes, from the invasion of the railroad into the country to medical reform, from ill-advised marriages to scandals involving wills and estates.  It’s subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and that is very accurate–Middlemarch, the town, is the most important character of the novel.

Why am I yammering about Middlemarch?  There are obvious similarities.  It takes place in a small, picturesque town and revolves around the lives of locals. It features the terribly poor, a bit of the very wealthy, and a lot of the middle classes. The town, Pagford, is its own character in the novel–though in this case I found that the town was always described in terms of what others felt about it. Good or bad, accurate or not, their opinions and emotions were what defined the town, rather than the truth of the town.  There is a local election, just like in Middlemarch. 

Another big similarity: I am not sure I like it.

I was expecting to like it.  I was confident that I would like it.  I like to read, and very rarely do I dislike a book I pick up.  On top of that, I am a huge Harry Potter fan, as anyone who reads this would know.  I trust JKR as a storyteller, and I don’t limit myself to specific genres or types of writing.  I had no reason not to like this new book…unless it just wasn’t good. Which, to be honest, didn’t really enter my mind as a possibility.

I’ve been trying to pin down what I dislike about it.  Nothing. There’s nothing.  But it just pales so much in comparison to HP, that I find it hard to enjoy.

The writing is the same style, lingering between literary and popular fiction.  It sort of takes popular fiction and adds more depth, emotion, and strong storytelling.  But it never makes the jump to challenging, and that can sometimes mean it never takes on the role of being extremely meaningful.  When you’re in a world where fate and destiny play huge roles in the lives of your characters, that is less important.  Everything is meaningful and it’s easy to take allegory away from the characters and the stories. Everyone can see that Voldemort is like Hitler, without much prompting.  But when you’re dealing with ordinary life, and you have things like sex, drugs, child abuse, and banality, something is almost lacking.  The story is about ordinary people, and the writing never verges into the extraordinary.  Which means the whole novel feels a bit flat at times. I would still prefer this to pretentious stories about ordinary people (*cough*Jonathan Franzen*cough*), and if she hadn’t written Harry Potter first, then perhaps I wouldn’t be disappointed by this.  But she did, and I don’t think there’s any way to not be disappointed at something that doesn’t quite match that achievement.
Another thing that seems missing is the humor. I know that people described it as a ‘dark comedy’, but I think those people are loose a screw. This is a tragedy.  It even passes the “tragedy ends with a funeral, comedy ends with a wedding” test of ye olde dramatic categorization.  There are moments where particularly obnoxious characters are put in their place, but I did not find those moments funny.  Usually, in order to give those characters a much-needed ego check, someone else has to suffer.  In one scene, a pretentious council member is explaining that no government funds should go to treat drug addicts, because they are costing tax money when all they need to do is stop taking drugs.  His doctor then points out that if he thinks it’s so simple then why doesn’t he stop gorging himself on foods (he’s quite overweight) and asks if he knows how much his bypass surgery cost the taxpayer. There is a savage pleasure in hearing this man put in his place, and this scene made my jaw drop.  But at the same time, the hatred and anger everywhere is tiring and made me so anxious that my hands were shaking.  And of course, there were consequences for the doctor as she was breaking patient privilege saying these things in public.  Compare this to a scene in which Draco Malfoy or similar is firmly humiliated.  Of course, I found most of those scenes counterproductive and unrealistic.  But the realism of The Casual Vacancy was too much for me to feel comfortable with.  It made my palms sweat.

Much has been said about the sex scenes and the other explicit material.  I was a bit shocked by it, I’ll admit.  Then I asked myself, would I even blink if this wasn’t a writer I associated with a, frankly, sexless world.  No, I wouldn’t.  There was nothing so crazy or unusual in the scenes. It’s just that they were there that makes ripples.

As much as I feel conflicted about this book, there are parts of it that are so JKR and so well done that I would be amiss not to mention them.  Most obviously, her understanding of teenagers.  She has a great talent for describing any number of people and creating characters who are believable and tangible, but none more so than teenagers.  This book is no exception. They are all terribly visible, real, and easy to conjure in your mind. I don’t find that any of them reminded me of me, but I could see snippets of friends and crushes from high school in each one. I think much of it is her way of describing characters from their very first scene that lets you settle them in your mind as definite and tangible–never hazy or cloudy.  Even before you know much about them, you can see them.  She still has this ability.

She can also produce incredible emotional range in the audience (or, in me anyway).  I raged at times, I cried for sure.  I wish there had been more to laugh or smile about.

And so many of the characters are shown only as their worst possible selves, that there is little faith that they will really make things better.  It’s more realistic this way, but I apparently don’t read books for their absolute realism.  I just found it too depressing to want to read it again.

And I think that’s the real root of the problem. I suppose it’s a bit similar to Romeo & Juliet. The town is made stronger, but only through some incredibly senseless loss and tragedy. But even though it ends on something of an upswing, I find I’m too mired in the loss to move on and feel that it was worth it. The loss is too pointless and awful to make up for the meager offerings and motions toward a better world that are made in the last few pages.