Monthly Archives: February 2012

Room – Review – ****

Alright, fine, I read it, everyone. Next is The Hunger Games. Like I don’t have enough to do.

When I was a kid I thought my mom was the most beautiful person in the word, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t realise it. It is clear that Emma Donoghue has kids, and an excellent imagination, because she is very good at telling the behind-the-scenes thought processes for the gibberish that comes out of kids’ mouths.

Room, for those few who don’t know, is about a kidnapped and imprisoned woman, and the child she raises in captivity for 5 years, told from the perspective of the child, Jack. It is split into 5 parts, but the story is easily divided into before the escape, and after. According to Donoghue, Room was inspired (or “triggered” in her words) by the true story of Felix and Elisabeth Fritzl.

Five-year-old Jack’s voice lends itself well to much of the narrative, especially the tense scenes – techniques such as minimal punctuation, run on sentences, and jumping from action to action, scene to scene, match well to the vivid, immediate, and blunt communication style of children. But choosing to stick with Jack’s voice for the whole novel also lead to some unfortunate limitation. I wish we got to know a bit more about Ma and Old Nick, for example, although I understand the choice not to tell us – at 5 children don’t see their parents as people, they see them as “Ma” (and “Pa”). There were also some inconsistencies that it seemed like it would have been easy to fix; substituting “bad” for “terrible” when Jack describes how he’s feeling wouldn’t lose anything regarding the impact of the narrative, and it also wouldn’t jar us out of the illusion that we’re seeing through a 5-year-old’s eyes. You can’t have the kid unable to properly structure a simple sentence in one paragraph, and suddenly able to form complex phrases in the next.

Another criticism: All of the above (or the notes for it, anyway) was written about 3/5 of the way through the book. Everything that happened next, while perfectly entertaining and equally as well-written as the rest of the book, was really just re-establishing themes, thoughts, and ideas that had already been expressed before. It reminded me a bit of Wall-E or Up (or a short story called “I, Fly” I wrote many years ago) – the beginning is this perfect kernel of an idea, beautifully formed and expressed, and the rest is just padding, or at least not as effective. The entire speech-less part of Wall-E is one of the best things I have ever seen. The rest of the movie is solid and entertaining. Up has this phenomenal love story in the first, what, 10 minutes of the movie, and the rest of it has talking dogs and a bird named Kevin. It’s fun, it’s well-done. Room started out claustrophobic and fascinating. Then there was the rest. And it was fine.

I also don’t know what to do about references to current popular culture. Donoghue name drops Dora and Twilight and facebook – it’s not a bad thing, we all understand what she means, but how is the book going to read 50 years from now? I’m trying to think back on other classics, and note the pop culture they reference. I guess there’s quite a bit in Shakespeare, which is why so many editions of his plays tend to come with explanatory footnotes? I don’t know. I think it’s an interesting discussion.

One thing I hated that was totally not the book’s fault: when I read a book or author intently for any period of time longer than a day, I start to think in their phrasing, just for a little while. After I finished Pride and Prejudice, I started thinking in older English. After finishing Catch-22, I started thinking in run-on sentences. After finishing P.G. Wodehouse, I started thinking in humourously posh sentences. And after finishing Room,  I started thinking like Emma Donoghue’s version of a 5 year old. “Damn, I forgot to wash Pot this morning. I MEAN THE POT. THE.”

But I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I wouldn’t thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who can take the subject matter. Also, fair warning: as a journalism graduate with a brother in law school, I have to admit journalists and lawyers do not come across well here.

So in summation, it didn’t change my life or anything, but it was exactly what I’ve been looking for in a book these days – Room is new (by which I mean the subject matter hasn’t been done to death), engrossing, and easy, but not simple.

Cannonball Read III: 29/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 1/21)

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Reviews: The Harry Potter Books (ALL of them)

In what must have been 1999, my family went to Chapters on a book acquiring expedition. I must have been out of Animorph books to buy, because I remember wandering around, looking for something to catch my eye. A very nice lady (sigh; she was probably my age now) who worked there brought down a small red book with big yellow letters written on it, and told me and my dad that the books were flying off the shelves in Britain, and were a great read for parents and kids alike. Evidently I got stuck on that, because I remember harassing dad in the car: “Are you going to read it when I’m done, dad? You could read it TO me. She said we’d BOTH enjoy it. You’ll read it, right? Good. You promise? Okay.”*

That book was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and after I read it, I immediately snatched up the next one in the series. It’s unfortunate I’m a fast reader (or at least, I was…) because I remember waiting desperately for the third to come out, hopping in and out of book stores. Alas, when I found it in Toys Toys Toys or some such nonsense in the Bayview Village Mall, I didn’t have any money to buy it, but for once, I was grateful for my mom’s inability to spend less than 29 hours at a time in a mall, because I just sat in the store and read as much as I could. I can’t remember how or when I got hold of my own copy of the book, but at this point, I had passed the point of no return. (<– That’s fan art, for anyone who doesn’t want to click. I can also thank HP for getting me drawing again.)

***AHEAD THERE BE incredibly minor SPOILERS FOR ALL BOOKS***

The fourth was a pre-ordered birthday present from a friend (I still remember, Daniel), and the rest were pre-ordered by myself. I’ve read the first three more times than I can count, and the first five, I’d definitely need the fingers on more than one hand, but until the summer of 2011, I hadn’t read the last two more than once. This is because in 2005, my grandmother died and was buried immediately before I read about the significant death and funeral in the sixth book, and I had no desire to revisit that moment for years.

But this summer, I felt the urge (plus, you know, I was getting pretty behind in the CBIII, and it’s not as though HP is known for being a long, challenging read), so I decided to delve into the series again, from the beginning, and the whole way through.

There is almost nothing I enjoy more in a book than intricate, well-thought-out plotting (of course, good grammar, characters, and prose are also important STEPHENIE MEYER). The extent of this isn’t immediately apparent in the first HP book, but the seeds are there. For me, the friendly storyteller tone of this book (which, much like to Hobbit in comparison to the LotR series, dropped off after the first, introductory book) was a great way to enter the series, but I know a number of people I’ve recommended HP to have been turned off by it.

JK is great with little world building details and the passage of time, which is another part of what makes the books such a pleasure to read – you really feel like you’ve gone through a whole year of school with these kids. Much of the praise directed at HP, and the first three books in general, has a very clear ‘good “for a kid’s book”‘ tone. To which I say: bah. This is just a good book period.

Side note to those who’ve read the books: Dumbledore’s a bit of an ass, no? Harry was out for three days, the house points could have been given out then? No, let’s wait until the celebratory dinner and sucker punch those Slytherins in the neck. No wonder they’re pissy.

Rating: 4 stars

(Note: this one is dedicated to the person Jo has referred to as her “Ron” friend.)

I’ve always found book two the least enjoyable of the series to read. I don’t really have a good reason for this – going in, I thought I’d look for one to write for this review, but I have nothing in my notes. I always end up enjoying it more than I expected to. It’s kind of like the Freedom Day episode of Futurama – I never want to watch it (I don’t even want to now, and I know what I’m about to say), but I’m always glad I did.

By the time I first read book 2, complaints of “oh, so Harry’s magical and wonderful AND the best at the big wizard sport and it’s SO annoying” had become pretty common; to that, I would say: the first book is all wish-fulfillment fantasy – as you read on, you begin to see that Quidditch is the only thing Harry actually owns, with no help from friends, teachers, fate, dumb luck, or circumstance.

Reading the first few books in the series after becoming so familiar with the series as a whole over the last thirteen years, you realise how skillful JK is at weaving in information that will become so important later – most of the big, coincidence-y plot developments feel fairly natural, almost inevitable, because she mentions their foundations a book or more in advance of their importance. The fact that the deathly hallows were only really brought up in the last book was a part of that book which did, to me, feel like an afterthought. I know the cloak, and even the wand, were sort of mentioned before (and before they turned out to be different things, I thought the stone was the beozar encountered in book 1, which seemed brilliant), but you’d think the wizard version of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes might have come up at some point in Harry’s seven years immersed in the world (and I mean come on, he’s friends with Hermione. How she could have read that many books and never come across the Tales of Beedle the Bard before?…please.)

Rating: 3 and a half stars

And speaking of intelligent plotting…this is still my favourite HP book (and least favourite movie, but let’s not go there). It is, in my opinion, the most well-plotted and carefully planned, and had the best twist ending of any book I read in my tween years. Plus, here was the intro of my favourite character, Remus Lupin, who is also featured most heavily in this book. (Oh, Remus Lupin. You and Ford Prefect were the major literary crushes of my formative years. I mean, the first thing he does when we meet him is give everyone chocolate. I was in love.)

Sirius Black was introduced in book 1 (in the most amazingly blaze incident of advance plotting I have seen in some time), Azkaban and Whomping Willow in book 2, therefore their existence in book three is already established in the world, and it feels like a fun reveal when their significance is explained, rather than a hollow event. (This is similar to my complaint with some of the Sherlock Holmes stories – hey, the culprit was this criminal mastermind that only someone within the universe of the novel could possibly have heard of! Also, we didn’t know there was paint on his clothes until you told us, Sherlock! Play fair.)

Reading book 3 is a great experience. Like the first two books, it’s all the imagination evident in the little details that make this a true classic, new world, long-lasting book. I mean, her prose s never going to move you to tears, but this series is about plot and character, which are vivid, and the prose is sometimes detailed, sometimes atmospheric, but always in service to the aforementioned, and never flowery for its own sake – you can visualise everything (maybe that’s why the movies pissed me off so much).

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t have very much to say about this one that I haven’t gone over in the last three mini-reviews. There are more continuity mistakes in my 1st edition than I believe there were in others (e.g. Harry’s father coming out of the wand before his mother, “horseless” carriages should have revealed thestrals in the end of the book since we know Harry’s just seen Cedric die, etc).

We never find out who won the house cup, but it should be Hufflepuff. Of course, knowing Dumbledore, he probably pronounced Gryffindor as the victor moments after the moment of silence for Cedric (see review of first book).

Also, it’s interesting to watch the praise on the back of the book go from “wonderful children’s novel” to “publishing phenomenon” – I don’t really see how the latter is a reason to recommend a series to anyone. “Read this! I have no idea if it’s any good, but a WHOLE SHIT LOAD OF OTHER PEOPLE BOUGHT A COPY, so…you know. You buy one too!”

Rating: 4 and a half stars.

As much as I inexplicably dread reading book 2, this one is probably the hardest to get through for three very big reasons: 1) it is the longest (I believe JK herself, and certainly plenty of fans, have stated that this book cries for an editor more than any other; I’m not sure I agree with that last bit, but there is a lot of filler here); 2) angry Harry is just as unpleasant to read about as he (and most teenagers) are to be around*; and 3) UMBRIDGE. Oh my god, Umbridge. I am barely restraining myself from releasing the rant on Umbridge. I remember literally wanting to tear pages out of the book and eat them as a totally useless and impotent display of my hatred of her. Jeebus, what an effective villain. I’m almost tempted to say centaur rape was too good for her. But actually, that’s kind of horrific. I mean, holy shit, Jo.

*I remember that endless, bottomless, helpless rage of being a teenager, but that doesn’t make it fun to read about, especially considering how unbearably selfish that phase of teenagerhood is. It’s admirably realistic, but this is the longest book in the series, and Umbridge AND Harry being insufferable? It’s almost too much to bear.

Rating: 4 stars.

I like the device used in this one and book 4,  of introducing the reader to the plot from the perspective of a character who is not Harry Potter – the deviation from tradition is very effective (much like the absence of Hogwarts in the 7th book); despite grim news, the whole prime minister scene was very funny. JK is very good at low-key humour, and the moments make the grim events of the last few books a bit easier to stomach, and add a level of reality and humanity to the characters. No one in their right mind would deny that LotR is a masterpiece, but it reads more like a bible (in itself an incredible feat of world-building, much like the first Dune novel) than a story about characters you could know.

A note about this one: I remember reading a friend’s new username on msn before this book came out. It said “SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE” and I thought “hahaha, good one.” And then I read the book. So…lucky I’m reverse gullible?

Rating: 4 stars.

I can’t find any notes on this one. Not sure that I wrote any, since I read it when school began in September. Dammit.

So here, I will briefly describe the feeling I had upon opening this book – the last new Bloomsbury hardcover with “Harry Potter” printed on the front and JK Rowling’s name floating around somewhere random. There’s a smell that new books have the bleeds into your mouth, a taste, of crisp, clear pages, untouched by My Brother the Book Destroyer, glue and ink, the promise of a full day or days of reading and discovery, and know you’ll enjoy it no matter what because you already care about the characters, and for once, you have faith.*

I remember I had pre-ordered this one, but the day it arrived in front of every fanatic’s door, my family was on our summer holiday in the states. EVERYONE was talking about the damn thing, and I couldn’t read it because it was sitting and home in the proper cover, and American covers are STUPID.

*I think the reason I was always sure that each new HP book wouldn’t be a disappointment was that I knew that most of the books had been planned out already, so much of the writing was just filling in puzzle pieces and connecting the dots – anything that went wrong would have done so a long time ago. Plus,  I wasn’t a huge “shipper,” and most of the couples I was vaguely interested in I was pretty confident were canon. The most I ever worried about was if/when my favourite character would die. Because it always, always happens. And Remus doesn’t die until almost the very end – I was so hopeful. Sigh.

So yeah, it was a fitting ending. A lot of it was fairly predictable, but there were only so many ways the story could end, and after years of obsessive fandom immersion, it was almost inevitable someone would have suggested each one. I didn’t even really have a problem with the epilogue. It was a bit needless, but I understood the desire to have the audience know that Harry and his friends were fine – in this world of needless sequel milking, it was nice that JK wanted to decisively end things.

Rating: 4 stars.

I don’t have a heck of a lot to say about these ones either. They’re nice little companions, utterly inconsequential to anyone who isn’t a superfan of the world JK created. I probably liked the Tales of Beedle the Bard best of the three – the stories really did feel like old classics, and it was neat to see JK’s drawings. I would have killed (someone who really deserved it) for that gorgeously bound special edition. The other two were entertaining. I know this is a silly complaint, but for a library book and a supposed school text, they really were a little slight for believability. But they were fun, and the amount of thought and detail that is evident throughout is just further proof of the completeness of this wizarding world. Love it.

Rating: 3 and a half stars.

And that’s it. The series is more than the sum of it’s parts – I’d rate it 4 and a half to 5 stars overall, in reverence to the amount of times I’ve re-read it, and the enjoyment it, its characters, and its fandom have given me.

*By the way, my dad STILL has not read any of the books. I was more successful with my brother, who couldn’t get through the first book at first, but now may have read the whole series more times than I have (although I doubt anyone has read Prisoner of Azkaban more times than I have).

Cannonball Read III: 21-28/52

100 things to do in 1000 days; #34/48: Watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

I honestly expected to hate this movie.

(Many hours later)

Actually, I planned a better review than this, but I’m tired, and I’ve lost interest, so I’ll say that the first 5 minutes or so I spent thinking my expectations had been confirmed, but the rest of the movie was pretty great. It was real, and interesting, and not terribly predictable, and I was reminded why I liked Kate Winslet, because she been walking around with a major bitch!face lately and I’d forgotten. I’m not unromantic, but most of the “romance” that happens on the big screen is pretty appalling, and I was convinced that Clementine was just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, so I was very pleasantly surprised that this hit me in the romantic sweet spot. The acting was good (I’ve always liked Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Carrey was impressively un-annoying), the story was good, and I’ll probably watch it again. Hey future Donna, are you bored? Pop this in the DVD player, why not.

Scene that is seared in my brain right now: a pan across the different people waiting in the Lacuna offices reveals a woman whose dog has clearly died. No matter how horrible losing Fudge was, I would NEVER want to forget a single moment of being with him. Love you, baby boy.

eternal

100 things to do in 1000 days; #65/66: Watch Terriers.

So. Terriers. As a self-described TV fanatic who supplements her habit with a considerable dose of online discussion, recaps, and trivia, I had heard a lot about Terriers before deciding to settle down an actually watch it. Terriers was one of those well-beloved but little-watched shows that were given one season and an unsuccessful “Save The Show” campaign to make their mark on the television landscape.

I love a well-acted drama and a well-told story, but I think, in the case of TV, I tend to wait until a heavy dramatic series has finished its run before actually watching it through. Same with books – I refuse to read Game of Thrones until the series is complete. So although I consider myself a TV fan, I haven’t seen Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood, The Shield, Game of Thrones (now it just looks like I’m a pretender to the throne! I swear I’m not – let me list all the TV I DO watch! You will be amazed! And, somehow, I will still wind up ashamed…), or a dozen other critically acclaimed shows that the television connoisseur must watch if she wants to keep her reputation. Also, while watching TV, much like while reading, I tend to get overly invested in characters and situations. I find it much more fun this way – what’s the point in NOT allowing yourself to get all absorbed a story? What’s the point (especially when watching drama) if you’re NOT going to care about what happens? You may as well spend your time doing something productive.

I’m like Abed – I like liking things.

But when you let yourself care and get carried away with fiction, it can be draining. I need to have a certain amount of a specific type of energy stored up within myself if I’m going to be immersed in the worlds of The Wire or Six Feet Under.

I watched Terriers in two bursts – the first 6 episodes a few weeks ago, and the last 7 episodes a couple days ago, both times sitting at my computer for about 5 straight hours.

The acting is phenomenal. Donal Logue as Hank Dolworth, especially, blew me away. The long- and short- term arcs were well-planned. The series is beautifully shot. I loved Hank, I cared about Britt and Katie, the cases of the week were mostly effectively portrayed. But I don’t think I really liked the show. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again. I’m not really sure why – at one point, while writing this, I was prepared to say “Terriers is overrated” and have done with it. But that’s not really true. All the praise heaped on the show – I can’t argue with any of it. I’m glad the show exists, I don’t begrudge anyone’s enjoyment of it (in contrast, I DO begrudge people’s enjoyment of Two and Half Men). And it’s not as though I hate thinking about a show after I turn the TV (or computer) off. Maybe I just didn’t find it as funny as many who watched seemed to – so maybe there wasn’t enough lightness there to balance out the bleak worldview and messy, minor victories. I didn’t find some of the plot twists as clever and unexpected as many did – and I’m not being haughty; you can’t fool everyone all the time, and I’m usually not especially great at guessing good twists advance, so maybe my brain just works in a similar way as the writers’*. Maybe it just didn’t gel with my personality, I don’t know. I’m not sure I would recommend the show – it’s certainly worth checking out for the reasons listed above, but personally, watching it gave me very little joy.

 

UPCOMING SPOILERS

 

SPOILERS SOON

 

* SPOILERS AHEAD: For what it’s worth, Jason’s death shocked the hell out of me, and the reveal of the real rapist was very effective in playing with crime TV conventions and audience expectations.