Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter again (updated)

Well, it's probably no surprise to my readers, all six of you, that we are still obsessed with Harry Potter around here. It's been such a topic of conversation both here at our house, among friends, and in the press, that I've been tempted to post more about it, but since-- as far as I know-- none of you are similarly obsessed, I've resisted. But I'm posting this one, which I'll update after I've read the seventh book, and it's easy enough to skip if you're not interested.

All four of us (plus some of my 17-year-old daughter's friends) went to our local Borders for the release party last night. It was a hoot. A little weird, yes, but also a lot of fun. I was expecting about a hundred people, but I'd guess there were easily 500 there. It's not a huge Borders like I've seen in some cities, but it's a big book store, and it was packed. all ages, all levels of costume-- some very creative ones, too. We left at midnight, preferring to actually purchase somewhere where we wouldn't have to stand in line for an hour, but it was definitely worth going just for the experience.

I haven't read it yet, but here are a few reactions to things that I've read or heard.

It never ceases to amaze me the attraction Americans feel to being the persecuted minority. I've heard both sides-- people who don't like HP who feel that they are looked down on or ridiculed by the faithful, and those of us who are fans who have been roundly criticized for supporting such a silly cultural phenomenon. I've even experienced this one-- I had a woman I'd never even seen before lecture me about the dangers of poorly written children's books a couple of years ago while I was standing in line at a bookstore with a copy of the 6th book in my hand. I've already stated my opinion about Rowling's writing skills-- that she started out as a thorougly mediocre writer and has turned herself into a better-than-average one-- but even if they aren't the most elegantly written books ever, they still are an interesting story well told, and I'm glad my children enjoy them. I guess my definition of good writing for an adventure story is that you don't notice the writing. I don't care about elegance when there's a suspenseful plot involved, I care about finding out what happens and not being distracted by the writing. And I would say in the fifth and sixth book she definitely made that happen. (I never did re-post my review of the fourth book but maybe I will, since I think I made an interesting point, not that I'm biased or anything. ) She has a somewhat irritating tendency to use ellipses or dashes when Harry is in mortal danger and she is recording his thoughts-- I think she is trying to get across the idea that he is thinking on the fly and they aren't fully formed thoughts, but it is distracting. but that would be my only remaining complaint about her writing.

Of course there are all kinds of people that dislike these books, many of whom have excellent taste. Neither of my siblings likes them, and both of them have tried hard to. I know a number of kids that don't like them. In fact, as I'm tallying up here, I think more of our kids' close friends dislike them than like them. Or maybe not dislike, but just aren't interested enough to read 700+ pages worth. So they definitely don't appeal to everyone.

But then there's the people who seem to dislike HP purely because the series is so popular. As if anything that is that widely popular must by definition be derivative and superficial. I just flat out disagree that that is true, so nuff said there. her depiction of good and evil is (to me) surprisingly complex for a children's book. There are definitely two camps in these books-- the bad guys, followers of Lord Voldemort, and the good guys, the ones that oppose him. But on both sides there are a surprising number of people of all types. There are some very disturbing, nasty people who are good guys (Dolores Umbridge, Mr. Crouch, Scrimgoeur). And of course, Snape, who is so difficult to read that declaring whether you think Snape will end up as a good guy or a bad guy has been one of the most fun debates of the last couple of years. And among the bad guys, there are some who are there purely because they fear the consequences of not following the Dark Lord, and many who display otherwise-good qualities of loyalty, devotion and commitment. I think the confusion comes in because Rowling always, even in the midst of the most dire scenes, throws in some humor, which perhaps makes her approach seem more lightweight than it really is. I happen to appreciate this, because as you have probably noticed, I also tend to be a bit flippant when discussing even the most serious of issues.

The other thing that I've seen a lot over the past few days is various different experts recommending other books that make HP look like sawdust, according to them. Since I'm probably one of the few adults that's read most of these other books, I can tell you that there are indeed a lot of good children's books out there that haven't received nearly the interest or exposure that they deserve, probably in part because of the success of the Potter books. But for me, few of them have the magnetic, mesmerizing interest of Rowling's books. Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials books are indeed excellent, and probably the best example of books that didn't get the exposure they deserved. They're interesting, and complex, and very absorbing. but I thought they went downhill as the series progressed-- the first book is definitely the best. I'm planning on re-reading those now that they're making them into movies, so maybe I will revise my opinion about that. I also read last week a woman recommending "Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell," which floored me-- I thought that was the most boring book I'd read in years. I tried, I really did. I love fantasy, and it seemed like a book I would really like. I read at least 350 pages of it. But I kept putting it down and not caring whether or not I picked it back up again. I finally gave it up and put it in the Friends of the Library sale pile.

I can't believe I let this get this long. I'm not obsessed, really I'm not. I can quit any time. More later when I've finished the book.

Update: Finished the book last week. As the end of the series, I'd give it an A-. It is a great read, very absorbing, and very emotionally involving. Given all the expectations she had on her shoulders, it is amazingly good. Definite thumbs up. As a standalone book, though, I'd give it a B-. I can't really say why without giving spoilers, so I'll just leave it as that. I enjoyed reading it.

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