Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second book of the Harry Potter Series. My commentary on the first book,Harry Potter and the Philosopher's  Stone is here.  In this novel, Harry returns to Hogwarts and some other magical places for his second year of school. This time around, an ancient and secret chamber of Hogwarts has been opened and a mysterious creature that dwells inside it is menacing the students. Harry’s best friends Hermione and Ron are back along with the nasty Draco Malfoy, Headmaster Dumbledore and gamekeeper Hagrid, just to name a few. In the end, while flawed, and not as groundbreaking as the first book, this was still enjoyable for a lot of reasons

Like the first series entry, I found that this book was entertaining and fun. It is also full of Rowling’s creativeness. It is also very funny. 

I should also mention that I found  these first two books weak on characterization. Many of the characters, such as Hagrid, are fun to read about but are not even a little complex. There are hints that there is some depth to Harry’s persona as well as the persona of seemingly malevolent professor Severus Snape. However, these are only hints and I would have liked this second book a lot better had the characters been further developed. With all that, this lack of characterization is no worse then is exhibited by other "genre writers" that I have read and enjoyed  such as Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Larry Niven. Yet the works of all off these authors are often called classic. I think that when it comes to a certain type of fantasy and science fiction, this flaw is fairly widespread. In the end, it is not stopping me from enjoying and getting a lot out of books by Rowling or these other authors. 

Once again, I am not going to try to do a complete review or analyses of this novel; I am instead going to write a few words about one aspect of the book and the Harry Potter phenomenon that I find interesting. In my previous blog, I talked about how I thought that many readers related to The Harry Potter Series because it depicted a young person who was special but unrecognized and who eventually found recognition for his specialness. After reading this book, another reason that this series is so loved comes to mind. It is something exemplified in this second novel. Several people, all adults, have told me personally that they wanted to attend Hogwarts. In addition to the colorful characters that populate it, there is something about the physical description of the structure and surrounding areas that draws readers in. 

Hogwarts itself is described as an enormous castle. It is so large that students who have attended it for several years sometimes still get lost. It is filled with secret rooms, passages and multiple dungeons. There is an elaborate banquet hall where dozens of students and professors sit to eat lavish meals. There is a library filled with ancient and mysterious books on magic.  Adding to the appeal, Harry and Ron often sneak around at night exploring. This is a place that I, too, would love to explore. 

At one point, Harry enters a mysterious hidden room, the Chamber of Secrets of the title, 

“He pulled out his wand and moved forward between the serpentine columns. Every careful footstep echoed loudly off the shadowy walls…The hollow eye sockets of the stone snakes seemed to be following him. More than once, with a jolt of the stomach, he thought he saw one stir. 

Then, as he drew level with the last pair of pillars, a statue high as the Chamber itself loomed into view, standing against the back wall. 

Harry had to crane his neck to look up into the giant face above: it was ancient and monkey-like, with a long thin beard that fell almost to the bottom of the wizard’s sweeping stone robes, where two enormous grey feet stood on the smooth chamber floor”

As the above quotation illustrates, Rowling's description of rooms and passages tend to be interwoven with the characters' physical movements through these places. She also describes the character’s feelings and physical reactions, as Harry’s “jolt of the stomach” highlights. I find this technique to effectively put the reader into the scene itself. I credit this with much of the popularity that this series has garnered.  I would quibble just a bit, however. In the above passage as well as throughout the first two books, I find the description to be a little too sparse. I would prefer more detail. This lack of detail can be found throughout the first two books. 

The area around Hogwarts is just as appealing. Near Hogwarts is the Forbidden Forest. Students are warned away from the place as being extremely dangerous. It is indeed filled with both malevolent and benevolent creatures, including unicorns, centaurs, giant spiders and evil wizards. It was introduced in the first book and greatly elaborated on in this novel. Once again, it is a place that I would love to explore. 

Rowling has a special imagination. She creates places that touch many people. She combines descriptions of tunnels, old and mysterious rooms, trails, woodlands, mythical and fanciful creatures and objects, etc.  that creates a certain tone and atmosphere. The feel that she generates when describing these places is mysterious and even when she depicts seemingly frightful situations, that feeling is strangely welcoming. I think that these fictional places touch the psyche of many people. Thus, this seems to be another reason that these books appeal to so many people.  At the same time, all the pictures of all these fun places that the author builds are somewhat marred by thin descriptions. Nevertheless, Rowling has built a wonderful world here. 

Thus, I like this book a lot while not being unaware of its flaws. I still plan to keep reading the novels. It seems that continuing through the series will be well worth it. I still think that I may read them straight through if I do not become too fatigued with the series.  Thus far, despite some shortcomings, I have very much enjoyed the first two books. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was first published in 1881 and revised by the author in 1908. I read the later version.  It is the story of Isabel Archer, a young American woman who travels through and eventually settles in Europe. James’s book is a deep character study exemplified by a unique prose style that is heavy on words but that often soars to great artistic heights. 

Isabel is young and vivacious. Above all, she values her freedom as well as the benefits of exploring the world and of people. She is surrounded by male admirers, several of whom propose marriage. Lord Warburton is a rich nobleman who seems to respect Isabel’s freedom and is willing to accept that she be given a wide berth to explore; Caspar Goodwood is an intense and willful American who exhibits his intense love for the book’s heroine. Ralph Touchett is Isabel’s sensitive and wise cousin who is hobbled by serious physical illness. 

Isabel has other interesting friends and family members. Mrs. Touchett is her independent aunt and Ralph’s mother.  Though she is often abrasive, Mrs. Touchett is also honest and a good judge of character. Henrietta Stackpole is likewise overbearing and judgmental but shows herself to be a loyal friend. Madame Merle is controlled and proper but is later shown to be a manipulative schemer.

Isabel eventually marries Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy. Isabel sees Osmond as a man of great taste who is portrayed as appreciating beauty in a unique way. She believes the fortune that she recently inherited will be put to good use by him. After a year or so of marriage, Isabell realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Osmond turns out to be cold and stiffening. He has an image of beauty, perfection and propriety that he insists Isabel live up to.  He eventually comes to hate Isabel. Isabel realizes that she has traded a happy life for one of misery. Isabel’s true complexity is revealed. She is much more than just a woman who values freedom and now finds herself trapped. At this stage of the story, she chooses to act in a very specific, ethical way that even some readers might question as being detrimental to her own self-interest. 

The strength of this book is in characterization and prose. Isabel is a brilliantly wrought character as are her male admirers and friends.  Evan Osmond, a very unsympathetic character, is portrayed in interesting detail. I could devote an entire blog post to any one of these personas. James’s writing style is dense with description and analysis of his subjects. The plot moves slowly, however. The reader gets the impression that James is in no hurry to move things along. I often say that I appreciate novels that are light in plot and heavy on characterization, strong prose, etc. However, I found myself wishing that this novel would move a little faster at times. Perhaps this is because James is good at setting up interesting situations that whet the curiosity. I wanted to know what was going to happen faster than the novel was furnishing answers.  Thus, the glacial pace of the plot became a little frustrating at times. 

At other times, the dense and descriptive prose becomes sublime. At one-point, Isabel realizes that her marriage was essentially a scheme between Madame Merle and Osmond with a primary intention to get at Isabel’s money. Isabel is plunged into a kind of philosophical despair, 

“Isabel took a drive alone that afternoon; she wished to be far away, under the sky, where she could descend from her carriage and tread upon the daisies. She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater.”

I find the above passage to be both terribly sad and wonderfully written. It is also full of meaning that is presented in a literate and moving way. First, the desire to tread upon daisies, a symbol of true love and purity, seems perfect given Isabel’s mood.  Next, I find that the way in which Isabel’s personal catastrophe is compared and contrasted with the ruin of Ancient Rome is so well written. Her realization that, in the grand scheme of things, her personal tragedy is small is very much in line with her humble character traits. In a way, this turns a very personal story into something much bigger. It also magnifies the despair that Isabel experiences. 

Another important current flowing through this book is that, to some extent, it looks at the relationship between Americans and Europeans from a somewhat unusual direction. All of the major characters, with the exception of Lord Warburton, are Americans living in Europe. How they interact and talk about the Europeans, and vice versa, is worth a blog post in and of itself. 

I would not recommend this book to someone who was looking for a novel with a lot of plot developments or a fast-paced story.  It is best read patiently, as it is mostly about characters and writing style. As such, it often moves into the areas of greatness. I recommend this book for those prepared to appreciate its low-keyed brilliance. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I have finally read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. One can say that I am late to the party on this one. However, the fact that I rarely read very new books and that this book was written within the past 25 years means that this novel is practically a new release for me. Like many others, I found this book entertaining, enjoyable and well worth the read. 

If anyone is unfamiliar with the plot, infant Harry Potter is left orphaned when his wizard parents are killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. Harry is raised by ignorant and repressive family members until his eleventh birthday. At that time, he is taken to Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizards. Here he meets a host of new characters, both friendly and no so friendly. Fellow students include his best friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as well as the nasty, bullying Draco Malfoy. The professors include Albus Dumbledore, a great wizard and headmaster of the school, the large, imposing but friendly gamekeeper Hagrid and the dark and seemingly hostile professor Severus Snape. Harry encounters all sorts of wonderous and magical objects, creatures and adventures at Hogwarts and eventually confronts Lord Voldemort.  Rowling has created a wonderfully imaginative world and written a novel that is very, very fun and pleasant to read. 

There has been so much said about this book that it seems redundant to write a conventional review or analysis.  Instead, I want to share a few thoughts on one the things that I believe make this book so popular.  Harry Potter has generated enormous fame. In addition to the books, the phenomenon has expanded to films, amusement parks, plays and more. Tens of millions of people love this series. People have told me that the only books that they have read in the past ten years are the Harry Potter books. I should mention that I have a kind of instinctual suspicion of things that are this popular and this commercialized. However, I can say that in my opinion, at least the first book is excellent and the films are very good. The story also manages to avoid many of the clich├ęs that characterize modern trends that I have come to dislike such as snarky and cynical young people. There are also corporations that are making a lot of money from all this, but there are many cultural trends that are a lot worse than Harry Potter that people are making a lot of money off of. 

It all started with this book. There are many reasons for its popularity. The world that Rowling has created is magical and would be a fun place to visit or even live in. I could list a lot of other reasons why people love the series and this book in particular. There is one interesting reason that struck me that exhibits itself in this first book. It gets to Harry Potter’s childhood. For the first ten years of his life Harry is raised by the Dursleys. Though at times they are portrayed comically, this is a family of bullies and abusers. They constantly put Harry down and heap excoriation upon him. Their son, Dudley, meters out physical abuse upon Harry as the Mr. and Mrs. Dursley all but egg him on. What is more, the family is not just intellectually Harry’s inferior, but they have no imagination. In fact, they are hostile to the concepts of wonder and creativity. Dudley never touches the books that he is given as gifts. The entire family hates the magical world that Harry and his parents are a part of. When Harry shows some glimmers of magic, they react with hostility and use this as an excuse to further bully him.

Early in the book, it is observed that the Dursleys are ashamed of their magical relatives, The Potters, 

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn't think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mrs. Potter was Mrs. Dursley's sister, but they hadn't met for several years; in fact, Mrs. Dursley pretended she didn't have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbors would say if the Potters arrived in the street. The Dursleys knew that the
Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him. This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn't want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

Later Mrs. Dursley comments about her deceased sister, 

"my dratted sister being what she was? Oh, she got a letter just like that and disappeared off to that-that school-and came home every vacation with her pockets full of frog spawn, turning teacups into rats. I was the only one who saw her for what she was -- a freak! But for my mother and father, oh no, it was Lily this and Lily that, they were proud of having a witch in the family!" 

Thus, Harry is special. But he is a special person raised by people who are unable to understand his specialness and are in fact hostile to it. I believe this is a feeling that many bright and gifted young people have. I think that such people often fantasize about other special people showing up and whisking them away to another world where their gifts are appreciated or are at least useful, just like what happens to Harry.  Often such feelings last until adulthood. Obviously, all this represents a desire to escape from the real world. I think that having occasional thoughts of this sort are as normal as they are common. I also think these that fantasies touch a lot of people, both young and old, in a special way. 

The Dursleys have no redeeming qualities. They are purely driven by ignorant viciousness.  Sadly, at least outwardly, some people like this exist in the real world. Thus, I will not say that this family is entirely unrealistic. Furthermore, there surely have been folks who have experienced such abuse, and worse, who relate to Harry Potter’s predicament. However, for many fans, though they were not raised by people like the Dursleys, this family represents everything in the world that is mean, nasty and hostile to people who are imaginative and creative.  With that, I think that if the Dursleys were portrayed with more nuance, this part of the book might have been stronger. If they had shown some humanity, along with their bad traits, I think that Harry’s plight might have been more interesting. 

I have praised this book and I have talked about the popularity of it and the cultural trends that have grown up around it. I should note however, that not everyone loves Harry Potter. Several literary critics, including Harold Bloom, have criticized Rowling for being an unskilled writer and being derivative of other authors. Not everyone that I know loves the books or the films. With that, the great popularity of these stories is undeniable and no matter how ones feels about it, it is worth asking why so many people love it. 

Like so many others, I enjoyed this book immensely. I will likely go ahead and read the entire series. My memory of the films leads me to believe that there are a lot of threads between the books that can get confusing if the novels are read with too much time in between. Thus, I might try to read them straight through. I am not sure if I will need a break between them, however. Either way, I will update my progress here.