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review 2017-05-12 23:12
The Awakening, and selected stories (Chopin)
The Awakening and Selected Stories - Kate Chopin

I read this in the edition that's free from Kindle, which unfortunately omitted the scholarly introduction advertised on the cover, probably for copyright reasons. Though I would have read it afterwards, it would have been nice to have a single essay to situate the importance of "The Awakening" instead of my inevitable after the fact googling.


The fact that I was unaware of this novel suggests either that my degrees in literature were deficient in American and feminist works (possible) or, more likely, that Chopin's work has been "found" and celebrated as proto-feminist since I ceased my active studies. That said, I found it both well-written and enjoyable in a sad sort of way. I did feel the unhappy ending - I should hope I am not spoiling anyone by mentioning that a nineteenth century story about an adulterous woman doesn't have a happy ending - was in some way imposed upon the novel by an author who saw no hope of its critical survival with any other outcome. Adulterous women pretty much had to be doomed in the 19th century, just like their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters a few decades later. Even so, the samples of contemporary critical reaction I found are rife with phrases like "not a healthy book" and "sad and mad and bad." It's really the only false step in an otherwise very well-depicted psychological journey: from an adolescent crush on a performer to a loveless marriage, to an attraction that "awakens" her romantically/sensually during a Louisiana beach summer, to a sexual liaison (the contemporary critics, used to decoding 19th century language, found this unambiguous, and so did I) with a substitute love object, and finally to a feeling of despair in the face of indubitable responsibility to her children after her romantic lover returns and pushes her away. But this last, the despair, was the least convincing and least fleshed-out aspect of the progression.


The little group of short stories added in with the novel are fairly insubstantial but interesting in their depiction of race and gender issues in that place (Louisiana) and time (the Civil War and just after). There's one story that was clearly picked just because it depicts - not in nearly so much detail of course - a woman making the opposite choice to Edna's in The Awakening, namely deciding to preserve her marriage rather than give in to a romantic attraction to another man. Another one that sticks in the mind is a rather nasty tale of a marriage between an aristocrat and a woman of unknown origin; he throws her out when her baby's skin tone appears to demonstrate that she is part Black, which he cannot under any circumstances accept. The last sentence of the story (it's a revelation about him and his own parentage) is quite a telling twist.


Reading fiction about "the woman question" in other centuries never fails to put me in a grateful frame of mind for the freedom of action and thought I enjoy.

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review 2017-03-17 22:57
Redshirts (Scalzi)
Redshirts - John Scalzi

By all rights this light-hearted riff on the "redshirts always get killed" trope from Star Trek should have given me a headache. After all, time travel plots always cross my eyes, and muddle that in with a crossover between fiction and "reality" - well, it's just as well that the cheerful flippancy of the book's tone encourages one to float along happily without demanding much in the way of either rigorous plot logic or depth of characterization.


Not at all by accident, I suspect, the "3 codas" referred to in the novel's original subtitle ("a novel and three codas") are where we get the most psychological depth. These three codas provide 3 denouements, rather preciously told in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person respectively, for three of the main "real" characters (i.e. roughly contemporaneous with us, and outside the quasi-fictional space narrative). The first of these "real" characters is a screen-writer whose rather incompetent narrative for a Star Trek-like TV show is intermittently invading the so-called "real lives" of the main novel's characters. Rather than getting a headache from it, I enjoyed this playful adventure in (bad) narrative and meta-narrative. I can see why that playful cleverness earned a Hugo.


I'm not at all sure, however, that I'll remember anything about this book but the cleverness. Perhaps that's enough.

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review 2017-03-10 21:21
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Rowling)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling

The extra star (my fairly rare fourth star) for this last item in the Harry Potter series reflects my satisfaction at a successful wrap-up of what had become by the end an exceedingly complicated multigenerational tangle of motives and magic. Just as we had the explication of Voldemort's past in Half-Blood Prince, we had a lot of visits to the past lives of Dumbledore and Snape here. However, I thought these inset narratives were a bit more gracefully handled in this novel.


That said, I'm not entirely convinced it was necessary to introduce an entire counterquest (the "search for 3" - the 3 Deathly Hallows artifacts that conquer death) in addition to the completion of the main quest (the "search for 7" - the 7 Horcruxes, including Harry himself, which contain the evil which must be killed). Just as Harry's self-immolation seems a bit redundant when we've already had Dumbledore's on the same altar, so too the extra quest seems rather heavy freight just for the sake of reinforcing the theme of the novel - that evil, not death, is the ultimate enemy.


That said, the King's Cross Station out-of-world vision was well worth it - quite probably the most affecting scene in the entire series.


Rowling takes us back to ground zero, Hogwarts, for the final battle between good and evil. I resented this slightly - as I had already been doing in some degree since Order of the Phoenix - as Hogwarts' safety and impregnability crumbled completely. There's something very distressing about a school that's not safe, especially when you have an author who, like Rowling, doesn't flinch at killing off her secondary leads.


Even had we not had Rowling's later clarification in an interview, I would have suspected that Dumbledore's infatuation with the evil wizard Grindelwald had a sexual element to it. But this comes from someone with a half a century of gleeful subtext detection under their belt.


I found Ron's desertion of Harry and Hermione when they were doing their enforced and very bleak on-the-run camping trip a bit under-motivated, but I was glad to see him return in a blaze of quasi-heroic glory, rescuing Harry from strangulation by a magical nasty in an icy pond. If there's a character-based summary for this novel, "Ron grows up a bit at last" might be it. I don't have problems with the Ron/Hermione pairing, but I am a little surprised that Rowling chose to pair Harry off as well (with anybody at all). I'd expect him to be noble and single, as Dumbledore was. Nonetheless, for me, the much-maligned epilogue was a matter for a shrug; why not give the main characters a mundane domestic future as a reward for surviving all that trauma?


It fascinates me what a massive influence this series has had on the popular culture of a generation a couple of decades behind mine. I was trying to think of a similar phenomenon for my own generation, but even "Star Trek", with all its well-known characters and catch-phrases, doesn't seem to me to have penetrated into all corners quite the way Harry Potter has with the millennials. I enjoyed the reading of this series purely for its own sake - I hope I've made that abundantly clear - but I also think I'm now going to reap the ancillary benefits of understanding what is almost a second language of allusion and emotional shorthand.


I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this experience (or not in the same way) if it had been spread across the decade of the original publications, with a new thick book every so often. Having it all focused into a few weeks, and through the rather sensually barren medium of an e-reader to boot, was, I think, the right way for me. Definitely one my most delightful reading projects of the last few years.

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review 2017-03-10 19:43
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Rowling)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling,Mary GrandPré

Of all the books in the series so far, this is by far the one with the unhappiest, and least satisfying, ending. It seems to me that it is in fact the first half of a two-book arc rather than a closed tale in itself, which is not in any way uncommon in fantasy fiction, but took me slightly by surprise in this series because the other novels have been so self-contained.


Spoilers ahead for the two or three people on the planet who have not yet read the books/seen the films/absorbed the gist from the general cultural soup. The biggest surprise to me in this novel was the death of Dumbledore, not because I wasn't expecting it (if ever there were a sacrificial king-figure set up to be replaced by the younger, stronger king, it is he), but because I was expecting it in the last book, not here. I was therefore slightly stunned and spent the fairly lengthy denouement of the story vaguely hoping that there would be some magical resurrection. I rather admire Rowling for not falling into that temptation. Dumbledore is not Aslan, Christ or Gandalf, it seems.


That Snape is a double agent being set up for redemption in the last book seemed to me also reasonably clear as I was reading this volume. That being the case, it was necessary to give him some very pressing reason to commit the ultimate treason - the murder of his leader - and that reason was the preservation of the nasty child (but still a child) Draco Malfoy from the consequences of being forced into that same act. I would have been happier if we had seen Snape make his irremediable vow to Dumbledore himself, rather than to Draco's mother. However, introducing the "mother's protective love" element resonates with Harry's story, I suppose.


Unusually, I found the unfolding of this novel a bit clunky - the long flashbacks to Voldemort's past seemed very expository. Perhaps this is because I was not terribly interested in having Voldemort's character fleshed out, preferring to have him as a featureless monster. I know for a fact that my other complaint of tedium is entirely my own bias: I am simply not interested in angsty teenage romance, which drives much of the Harry, Hermione and Ron part of the plot. The obligatory new professor (this time a pompous social climber named Slugworth) wasn't terribly memorable, either - but at least he wasn't Dolores!


All that said, tedium here is a relative concept. I still found this novel a page-turner, and I liked the nice clear metaphysical problem laid out (the soul divided in seven, each part enclosed in an object to be destroyed, the last object being Voldemort himself). The fact that that particular task is not completed by the end of the novel was enough to drive me forward quickly into the last instalment.


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review 2017-02-28 16:42
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - J.K. Rowling

I found this novel to be the most difficult of the Harry Potter stories to read to date, and the reason was undoubtedly the character of Dolores Umbridge. She is the embodiment of petty authoritarianism backed by government. Though her powers do not begin to approach the evil of the major villains of this universe, her low-key cruelties are somehow more painful. A large part of that is to do with the school setting, where (even with their magical powers, as developed by Dumbledore's Army!) the students are terribly vulnerable. It is fitting that Umbridge is ultimately destroyed (or at least pushed out of power) by elements - the centaurs - which are anarchistic, simply not recognizing the authority that backs her.


This novel is also about government authority created and held by the control of information. Rowling clearly depicts an official, state-controlled news medium, and the necessity for the alternative press, however wacky. The crucial event at the end of this novel is not an actual defeat of Voldemort's forces (in fact, an important character dies, a defeat for the good side), but is a breakthrough in the wall of "fake news" which denies Voldemort's return, and thus enables it. Voldemort is also thwarted in his quest for a vital piece of information (the prophecy about himself and a child), while Dumbledore significantly strengthens Harry's position by giving him a great deal more information at the end - information, he regretfully informs us, he wrongfully withheld just out of sheer affection for the boy.


The novel reaches a highly cinematic conclusion in the labyrinths of the Ministry of Magic - were the movies in view or even in production by the time this was published? - which manages to be imaginative, gruesome, and occasionally deliberately funny. In the midst of that, we also get to see for the first time a direct Voldemort-Dumbledore battle, in which Voldemort takes advantage of the mysterious synergy between Harry and himself but fails to make Dumbledore destroy Harry as a side-effect of attacking Voldemort. This part of the story also reinforces the elevation of Neville Longbottom from a comic foil to a major character.


My goodness, that's a very thematic analysis. Corking good story as usual, but because of Umbridge, I was rather glad to leave it behind and move on.

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