August 2016 Books

Okay, so clearly losing steam on this whole blog thing. I’ll definitely finish out 2016 with some form of monthly media discussion, but after that: hard to say. Anyway, it’s now October, but here is what I read in August:


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

I had a lot of feelings about this, but probably nothing that hasn’t been said 1000+ times by now, because obviously something as momentous as an addition to the Harry Potter canon is going to be discussed to death within hours of its release and it has now been 2 months since the script was published (and more since that article in The Daily Beast revealing the plot of the play). So yes, we all know at this point that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reads like a bad Harry Potter fanfic and there’s really no other way to put it.

There were some elements that had potential (i.e. Scorpius Malfoy, who is a TREASURE), but:

  • the timey-wimey bullshit is just too fucking dumb
  • the play form does not seem ideal for this story? Even if the actors are great and the sets are spectacular, the language and emotions conveyed don’t seem “theatrical” enough to make up for the lack of an omniscient narrator.
  • some of the colloquialisms (e.g. “ubergeek”) don’t seem to fit in to the world, even if we accept the idea that this is 20 years later and slang has changed
  • Ron’s characterization does him a terrible disservice

And overall, the idea that this is canon is just really quite uncomfortable. I feel like there’s another franchise that has something comparable, in a late addition to the series that is just so dumb and tonally off from the rest that the fact that it’s “canon” is a little sickening, but I can’t think of it? Maybe Hannibal Rising?

Also, there are specific scenes that should, at the very least, vindicate Harry/Draco shippers, Hermione/Snape shippers (it’s gross that there are so many of these, but it makes a lot of sense given the Hermione/Lily parallels, so they can have my begrudging respect from a literary perspective), Hermione/Draco shippers, and create a whole legion of Albus/Scorpius shippers, obviously.

In any case, the fanfic-y feel of the whole thing did compel me to revisit The Draco Trilogy, because there are a lot of similarities there; not sure if that reflects more poorly on Cursed Child or just reveals how prescient The Draco Trilogy was. Or, you know, neither, and there are just some elements in the original Harry Potter world that are obviously going to be of interest to anyone wanting to expand on the canon but are going to come across as suuuuper dumb if not handled correctly—e.g. Time Turner bullshit, Polyjuice hijinks, the Malfoy family, etc.

Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

So I recognize the artistic merit of these, but they mostly just left me feeling sort of gross/sleazy. I suppose that’s probably the intended effect (so kudos to West, I guess), but it just isn’t what I hope to get out of media consumption at the moment.

Selected quotes:

From Miss Lonelyhearts

She was laughing at him. On the defense, he examined her laugh for “bitterness,” “sour-grapes,” “a-broken-heart,” “the-devil-may-care.” But to his confusion, he found nothing at which to laugh back. Her smile had opened naturally, not like an umbrella, and while he watched her laugh folded and became a smile again, a smile that was neither “wry,” “ironical” nor “mysterious.”

From The Day of the Locust

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a “holocaust of flame,” as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, Evelyn Waugh

Eh, whatever.

Selected quote:

He wished no one ill, but he looked at the world sub species aeternitatis and found it flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded. Then he would come tumbling from his exalted point of observation. Shocked by a bad bottle of wine, an impertinent stranger, or a fault in syntax, his mind like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close up with glaring lens; with the eyes of a drill sergeant inspecting an awkward squad, bulging with wrath that was half facetious, and with half-simulated incredulity; like a drill sergeant he was absurd to many but to some rather formidable.

Once upon a time all this had been thought diverting. People quoted his pungent judgments and invented anecdotes of his audacity, which were recounted as “typical Pinfolds.” Now, he realized, his singularity had lost some of its attraction for others, but he was too old a dog to learn new tricks.

Treasure Island!!!, Sara Levine

So the central premise of this sounded super compelling—this aimless, recent-ish college graduate reads Treasure Island, is deeply affected by it, and decides to reshape her life/Core Values around it. I definitely understand that impulse at this stage of my life (see the obsessive E.M. Forster-ing), and as I’ve for sure mentioned in previous posts, I am interested in this idea of characters in the midst of personal crises latching on to an unlikely piece of media the same way that someone might latch on to religion, substances, etc.

That said: it’s super uncool to complain about “likability,” but holy shit, the first-person narrator of Treasure Island!!! is so unlikable that reading this was just a very cringe-y and frustrating experience. Usually, I’m not moved to cringe as much by books, but I think in this case, it’s because the protagonist is unlikable in such a realistic and often close-to-home way (very similar to how I feel about the characters on Girls). And I guess it is supposed to be valuable to have depictions of women who are unlikable in non-gendered ways. Especially with all of the rhetoric currently going around; I mean, I think it’s probably been going around for decades, at least, but is somehow rediscovered by each generation as they go through their socially/politically conscious phase in college. You know, all of these thinkpieces that get passed around telling women to be more selfish! Stop apologizing! Don’t worry about being likable! Push back against society’s expectations of demure, yielding femininity ! etc. etc.

But most of those thinkpieces are also assuming a universal female experience (#YesAllWomen) that’s just…not quite accurate. Some of us are already selfish, unyielding assholes, you know? So what if a selfish, unyielding asshole buys into that rhetoric anyway, and is then like, “you don’t want me to behave this way because of ~The Patriarchy~” when actually no, she’s just being a dick? It is something I think about a lot because of my own personality issues, so maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I would guess that the exploration of that in Treasure Island!!! is at least a little intentional.

Selected quote:

After racking up a row of D’s and F’s my freshman year, I avoided any class that required a Scantron and somehow wound up as an English major. Thus Rena remembered me writing lots of little pastorals, in which a simple-minded thesis shepherded its wooly flock of evidence over hills and dales and very shallow rivers. English majors never failed; at worst, their opinions simply differed from their teachers’, and everyone agreed that this difference could be adequately expressed with a C and a down-tilting minus.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, David Shafer

Solid. I mean, in all of the standard measures: solid characters, compelling plot, decent writing (What does that even mean? Well, very readable and never jarringly “bad” writing, with a few super poignant passages. Not necessarily the most capital-L Literary tone, but not airport thriller-esque, either.). And the technological conspiracy stuff is handled pretty well; I think it does pretty accurately capture people’s concerns and/or paranoia about surveillance, Big Data, etc. in the early 21st century in a way that will perhaps become an interesting sociological artifact in 20? 50? 100? years.

And it made me consider my own feelings on the matter, which I think are: why do we actually care about protecting our privacy, beyond the knee-jerk reaction that privacy = good?  Isn’t it in some ways more disturbing to think that governments/companies/individuals could potentially access all of our personal information, but most of us are such fucking non-entities that no one is going to be interested in targeting us as individuals? That all of the precious data we’re so worried about protecting—our emails, phone calls, social media activity, etc.—is actually fucking worthless to anyone but ourselves?

(Do I actually believe this? Idk, probably to the extent that I actually believe anything 10 minutes after saying it.)

Selected quote:

Well, obviously, yes, my life is easy, Leo thought. But only on one level. But that is probably the level at which ease has the most meaning, the most purchase. But lazy? No, probably not lazy. Lazy people, Leo figured, would probably derive some benefit of leisure from their lack of industry. And since leisure was not a feeling he had ever really even approached—hounded as he was from crack of morning to lip of sleep by a pack of worries and their contingent sub- and meta-worries—Leo reasoned that he could not fairly be called lazy. His problem came from being unable to trace a straight line from present state to future goal.

The BBC Talks of E.M. Forster, 1929-1960: A Selected Edition

Super pleasant to read; I mean, I’m predisposed to like anything Forster touched, but he does achieve such a solid conversational tone in these while maintaining this delicate balance wrt his audience’s diverse socioeconomic, cultural, etc. backgrounds–well, presumably diverse, because these are BBC radio broadcasts in the pre-ubiquitous television era. Plus, a lot of the WWII ones are broadcast specifically in India and aren’t that different in tone from the others. Zadie Smith discussed this balancing act more extensively and Britishly than I ever could in one of the essays in Changing My Mind, but yeah, it’s something about discussing “intellectual” topics without being either pretentious or condescending.

Also, I really respect Forster’s approach to book recommendations, which is more “here’s a thing that I read, these are some things I liked about it, and if that sounds appealing to you, go check it out” than “this book is So Important and you have an intellectual/moral obligation to read it.” Unfortunately, I suspect that most of the books he recommends are now out of print, probably due to the WWII paper shortage that I pretty much only learned about through these talks.

Selected quote from the 12/19/1932 talk:

Don’t, anyhow, label him as ‘highbrow’. And, by the way, since we are being desultory this evening, owing to the approach of Christmas, I wonder if you will join my new league of peace and goodwill, the only condition of membership in which is that neither the words ‘highbrow’ nor ‘Lowbrow’ shall ever be used? They are responsible for more unkind feelings and more silly thinking than any other pair of words I know. They attempt to introduce into literature the cleavage which is so lamentable in the world of industrial relations: the cleavage between the brain worker and the manual labourer. I’ve used them myself in the past, greatly to my regret; now, as penitents will, I want to found a league.


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