Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

Rowling continues to get better with each book. I know this is an unpopular thing to say but I actually liked this book the best of the ones I have read so far. I’ve been told over and over that this is the worst one and I think I can see why. Rowling finally takes the series into a darker direction. Much of the safety of Hogwarts is undermined by the removal of Dumbledore and the glorification of Harry takes a back seat as he finds that he is even more dependent on his friends than usual.

These are all good things as far as I can see.

However…

Apparently the wizarding world has no laws against blackmail, journalistic integrity, corruption, or monopolies. All the news comes from one source, all the money is kept in one bank, all the shopping is done in one alley, all the students ride one train (this makes no sense unless they only accept students from London). I understand that their community is supposed to be relatively small by comparison to the rest of the world but with this kind of infrastructure it surprises me that they have not devolved into a totalitarian regime before — Voldemort can’t be the first to try to take over and Fudge can’t be the first to institute Big Brother policies.

There are also seemingly no consequences for anything unless the plot demands it and there are no laws for anything unless the plot demands it. For example: Every book before this one Harry has performed magic outside of Hogwarts. The first year nothing was even mentioned, the second Mrs. Weasley yelled at Ron, the third year they brushed it off because Sirius had escaped from Azkaban, the fourth year — well nobody seemed to notice, but this year suddenly it’s a grand hullaballoo. When Harry blew up his Aunt out of anger and spite they just shrugged and said, let’s keep you safe from this scary man. When Harry defends himself and his cousin from a pack of approaching soul-sucking monsters he is threatened with expulsion and a life sentence.

I realize that this inconsistency is supposed to make the reader angry. It’s there on purpose in this case. Harry did the only thing he could do and he’s being punished. However the anger that it made me feel was the wrong kind, I felt angry that Rowling wasn’t being consistent with her world. But, then, there are several dangling threads of this tapestry that you don’t want to pull on too hard. If they bother you just take a few steps back until you can’t see them.

The plot is yet another of Rowling’s idiot plots in the same vein as all the others — mainly the plot happens because Dumbledore is such an idiot. I’m convinced that none of these books would have happened if Dumbledore were replaced early on by somebody who is actually competent. The first book he hides the key to Voldemort’s return behind some traps so juvenile that first-year students can defeat them handily then runs off to London to party with his friend. Each book since has hinged upon him withholding information, staying uninvolved or being coy when he should have been forthcoming. This book mixes things up a bit by having him admit that he’s been an idiot and that Harry would never have gotten into any of the scrapes he’s been in if he had just been given some information in the very beginning. Why Harry doesn’t walk away in disgust upon learning this remains to be explained.

The form of capital punishment used at Hogwarts is unnecessarily cruel and I would like to know how the parents react when they find out that detention entails carving sentences into their children’s flesh. I know I would turn into a tornado or raging fury that you don’t want to mess with if any these things were happening to my kids and I found out about it. The wizarding world just seems to take it in stride. The kids complain to each other but seem to think that school is a place where anything might happen and just take the abuse. The government is also really baffling. It appears that all the wizards and witches work for the Ministry of Magic in one position or another and the Ministry is able to issue decrees, change laws and create policies at a rate that is simply astounding for any single governing body. It’s completely unbelievable of a bureaucratic one.

Harry is banned form the Quidditch team early on. There is much rejoicing. He still talks about it a lot so it’s not a total victory. This may be my own issues with sports and the futility of most of the world’s preoccupation with what amounts to watching other people have a good time but I really dislike the Quidditch parts of these books. They are rarely interesting, usually pointless and always dull. (They present other problems as well by implying the wizarding world is much larger than is supportively possible given other monopolistic tendencies of their society…) Not to mention the fact that people play it while sitting on brooms, up in the sky with no safety harness, no net underneath, no pads even and the point of the game is to try to knock each other off their brooms while playing a kind of three-hoop basketball. The sudden rise in deaths coinciding with the advent of the game’s popularity should have ended it’s rise to national acceptance centuries before.

The brief glimpse we see of Harry’s parents shows that James Potter was a jerk, worse than Malfoy. I have no sympathy for him. I’m glad Harry didn’t grow up with that guy, he might have been a worse influence than Harry’s Uncle Vernon.

Harry starts training fellow students to fight bad guys. This is a good idea generally but seems to make little sense with what we’ve been told on every page up to this point. Hermione, who can do any spell instantly, is suddenly unable to do the defensive spells that Harry is teaching — the ones all of them supposedly learned in their first year. I understand that learning and doing are different things. Having an engineering degree is only about 15% of the preparation that you need to actually be an engineer. The rest comes as a form of on-the-job/learn-it-now training. However, these are mostly students who have been in school for five years. Does Hogwarts churn out students that are incapable of disarming an attacker — a spell they were taught in their second year? It appears so. No wonder Fudge thinks he needs to send someone to take over, the kids aren’t learning anything.

(I’m assuming that, in addition to all the magical classes they are taking, the students are also learning basic things like reading, writing, math, music, etc. though it seems like their lives would be so full they wouldn’t be able to breathe if that were the case. I have a hard time imagining that, even in the wizarding world, people don’t need to learn to read and write in order to communicate clearly.)

The villains of Harry Potter are incapable of concocting plans that do not come to fruition at the end of the school year. This should make them very predictable, yet it somehow does not.

Now the parts I did like.

Umbridge is a supremely nasty  and believable administrator. She gave me real shivers every time she inserted herself into any scene (she reminded me so much of some of the management I dealt with when I worked for Wal-Mart I actually had a hard time reading some of her scenes.)

Fred and George are delightful, brilliant and I love that their arc has been developing for several books now and culminates here. This is one of the few stories in these books that actually developed over several years. (Most of the time the spells and history relevant to that year’s plot are learned that year.)

Sirius Black died. I liked this for three reasons. One, Sirius is a whiny immature authority figure for Harry who goads him into trouble and stupid decisions at almost every turn — he’s really not a good influence. Two, he’s not really a healthy one either as Harry attaches to him almost immediately. It’s important for Harry to be alone, with no parent figure in his life that he can trust, because that’s when he will be forced to rely on his strongest asset which is his friends. Three, this is Rowling finally taking things to the next level. Voldemort, up to this point has been almost-killed by a baby and showed he was back by killing a high-school kid. Mostly he’s a mustache twirling super villain who hasn’t actually been able to do any villainy yet. (He still hasn’t but at least one of his followers did.)

Rowling doesn’t shy away from dealing with the fallout of Sirius’s death. This has been impressive to me in each book. Harry deals with some pretty nasty trauma each year and then has to go back to live with his abusive Aunt and Uncle. Rowling doesn’t gloss over it. Harry is stricken into a black depression by Cedric’s death at the end of the fourth book and runs around grasping at straws after Sirius’s death in this one. He’s just lost his last connection to his parents and wants that back. The desperation is palpable. It is probably this one aspect of these books that completely sells the rest of the story to me. Rowling can get away with a lot of ridiculous in the plot, characters and world building by shoving me into Harry’s head and making me feel the utter emptiness that is a lost loved one and the desperation with which he struggles to find a way to bring Sirius back.

Rowling’s writing has improved with each novel and become more readable. I’m not sure if that is because she is becoming a better writer or because her audience is getting older. She has done a spectacular job of aging the story and writing up with each successive book so that the target audience stays the same as they get older.

In fine, I found this book to be the best of the bunch so far. It moved past the glacial opening of Goblet of Fire, it had a moderately less contrived plot than Prisoner of Azkaban or Goblet of Fire and the writing and emotional impact are top notch. I have enjoyed each successive Harry Potter book more than the last and this one is no exception. Let’s hope the ramp continues upward for the next two.

Balloons

IMG

Even the dust and hard water spots that are the bane of clear photographs everywhere look better on film than they do on a digital camera.

I think, at this point, I need to clear about something. I think film is beautiful. There is something powerful and majestic and simply magical what happens when photosensitive chemicals are exposed to light focused through a series of lenses. It’s somehow organic and alive and also firmly rooted in hard science. I do not choose to use film very often, though. The biggest reason is the convenience and expense. Film costs much more than digital. However I am constantly in awe of the technical quality of the digital cameras that are available now. Technically the digital camera now can get a better picture than film ever could. Artistically they are simply two different media, like watercolor and oils.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I found The Help to be more entertaining than any book about Civil Rights in 1960’s Jackson Mississippi has a right to be. I’m not entirely sure if that is a criticism, a complaint, or a compliment. Whatever it is it starts with C.

The book is filled with truly delightful narrators in the persons of Aibilene, Minny, and Skeeter. The first two are black maids working for white women, Skeeter is a white girl who just finished college and wants to write something important so that she can get a job with a publisher as a journalist.

The three all come together when Skeeter stumbles, almost accidentally upon the idea of writing the story of the maids in Jackson, showing what they see and do all day.

Parts of the story are sad, parts are frustrating, and all of it is smooth as butter. The tone is fairly light while also dealing with some really weighty matters (beatings, killings, violence and really horrendous human behavior). I think that the tone is what both saves and condemns the novel.

If the story was dark and showed the vacant, soulless side of human nature while a few people struggle to survive it could have quickly become just another story about ‘life is pain, highness.’ The lighter tone makes it so that all those horrible things have just enough emotional impact to feel it but it’s slightly removed, the characters aren’t directly abused physically (with exception of Minny but it is never shown ‘on screen’), it’s somebody else, it’s safe.

On the other hand the lighter tone also makes it feel like Stockett is treating a very serious and tumultuous time in our nation’s history with less than the proper amount of respect. 1960’s Mississippi was not a pretty place for anybody to be, especially Civil Rights activists and anybody who was not white. Having a more jovial bent to the story makes it feel less weighty, and maybe less important.

The delicate balance comes in the way the material is presented. There are seemingly good people, both black and white, who don’t want to change anything, who want things to stay the way they are. There are also people on both sides of the spectrum seeking change.

Stockett does a credible job of offering a variety of characters who all have their own agendas to make it feel real and heartfelt, almost heart-breaking while also being light-hearted and funny.

To my mind the voices of the three characters was spot on. I felt like I knew Minny, Aibilene and Skeeter within the first couple sentences of their respective narrations.

The relationships were less believable. We are told, over and over, that Skeeter and Hilly are best friends. Yet from page one Hilly is belittling everybody around her, claiming that ‘colored people’ carry diseases and generally being controlling and nasty. There isn’t a moment of redeeming virtue. There isn’t even a scene where Skeeter and Hilly get along. From page one they are frustrated at each other. It kept me wondering why they were ever friends to begin with.

This is where things get a little bit tricky. I enjoyed this book immensely. It is beautifully written and has characters that made me care deeply almost instantly. The words are smooth and beautiful and it feels like being in the south again. However, I am a white person and can only view this book with those eyes. To my eyes it does a great job of examining the lives of it’s characters. I don’t know what my reaction would be if I were not white. Many times being a privileged member of American society means that I completely miss blatant (and many times unintended) racism all around me until somebody else points it out.

A few things in this book stood out in my mind. All the black men are some kind of lowlifes — Minny’s husband beats her when he gets stressed, Aibilene’s husband left her when she got pregnant — while these are real scenarios and this does happen I felt like The Help presented the implication that it is more likely to happen in black families than in white, which simply isn’t true. I suspect the choices were made for dramatic effect and they worked very well, but the balance of a loving family of black people never shows up so that the reader can see that it does exist. Likewise there are no white men who beat their wives or run off on their pregnant wives.

There are probably more things that I missed and that brings up a question in my mind about preconceptions and decisions. I have no doubt that Kathryn Stockett did not set out to depict black men as wife-beating, abandoning rejects. She also didn’t intend to imply that all white families are supportive and kind, the implication is cultural and unintended, but it’s there nevertheless. How many times do I say things, do things, write things that are offensive to people of a different race, gender, age, ability or creed without even knowing that I am playing into stereotypes and false preconceptions? How often do we say things, thinking we are being fair when we really aren’t?

I know this happens to everybody because even if you are one of the minorities you have been raised in a culture that treats you as less privileged than the so called majority and that affects how you think. The only answer, as I see it, is to be aware and try to be better.

With that tangent aside and with the caveat that I read this book as an adult white male, probably the most privileged majority group in American culture, I found this book delightfully fascinating.

Film

BagMagic happens on film. I am convinced of this. Film has a look that cannot be had with digital photography without painstaking adjustment and tweaking in photoshop (or your tool of choice). It has an organic feel to it that just can’t be given with hard pixels.

A year ago I acquired some black and white film and borrowed a film camera. I took some picture, I developed the film and scanned them into my computer using my film scanner.

This is a paper sack full of bread crumbs to feed the ducks with.

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary

The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary

I know I read these books when I was little. I remember that I liked them but I do not remember anything from them, not even a single scene. My memory for books is pretty good, usually. If you talk to me I may or may not remember what you said the next day. If I read it in a book I can usually point to the page where certain lines of dialogue were said years later.

It’s just how my mind works.

I must have read about Ralph and his motorcycle when I was too young for it to stick, or it was before I was sentient and conscious of my own existence. Whichever the reason reading it now, to my four-year-old felt like a completely new experience.

This is a fun adventure, Ralph learns that he can drive toys by making motor noises. He learns to ride a motorcycle and then uses his newfound skills to save the day, ensure health and food for his family and grow up in the process.

It’s quite obviously a book for children, young children. It holds up well enough, in that I didn’t dread reading it each night — though I didn’t look forward to it like I did with Winnie the Pooh — but sometimes the teaching moments came across a little heavy handed. Like when Ralph is told he must not ride the motorcycle without a crash helmet.

There are two sequels so there is no shortage of Ralph adventures to read about and most children, especially boys, will find imagining a mouse friend that rides a motorcycle to be enthralling.

Portraiture

IEWI’ve been practicing taking portraits a little bit more. I’m not convinced yet that I’m getting any better. Until recently I wasn’t overly interested in portraits — I’m still not but it beats paying for family pictures.

Babies are like old people, their easy. Just give them some indirect light and a fast enough shutter and their pictures come out good.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I find Alexandre Dumas to be a troubling literary figure. He seems to be internationally revered as a great writer of fiction. Indeed he penned the greatest tale of revenge of all time in the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo. Unfortunately, what he really liked to write were bawdy tales of amoral misogynist layabouts who spend their days scheming to get money and being cruel to their unpaid servants.

The Three Musketeers is supposed to be an adventure story about three Musketeers, defying the machinations of Cardinal Richilieu. What it comes across as is the misadventures of a handful of low-lifes.

I never know if my criticism here is for the writing, or for the translation. It can be difficult to tell in translated works. Whichever is the case, the writing is horrendous. The sentences are short and choppy and full of awkward phrases. The biggest crime, however, is that the characters are despicable. D’Artagnan meets a young woman who is very beautiful, when he finds out she is his landlords wife he locks her in a room and refuses to let her go until she confesses that her husband is an oaf. When Porthos needs money he runs off crying to a rich woman in the hopes that he can catch her with her husband out of town. Aramis, who is supposed to be pious and devout even uses his cunning to cheat people out of their money.

They regularly break the law, and when called upon it lie to their superiors in order to escape the consequences.

Milady DeWinter is not in the least bit convincing as a seductress. She limits herself to swooning and pretending to pray and can turn even the hardest of hearts to her will. I don’t find it at all believable that she has that kind of power over people.

I know that it’s hard to assign human equality expectations to books written long ago but I still find it disturbing that women are spoken of as either objects or things to be protected. Aside form Milady, not one of the female characters is capable of grasping the simplest of situations, even when it is explained to them. They exist merely to provide pleasure to the men. The servants of the Musketeers are frequently denied pay (because their master’s gambled it away), beaten, kicked, sent ahead to see how dangerous the road is, even marched in front of their masters into a battle. This kind of treatment followed up with statements about how loyal they were to their masters and understand their place in life really made me feel uncomfortable

Those things aside. I can see why this has been fodder for so many movies. All of these things are straight out a Hollywood studio. Dumas was before his time.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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