Sunday, September 29, 2013

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – J.K. Rowling

Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts marks the most difficult year he has faced yet. After somebody conjures the Dark Mark at the Quidditch World Cup, everyone becomes a little more vigilant waiting for the next sign of Voldemort. Traditional school competitions like the Quidditch Cup and the House Cup are cancelled as international students come to Hogwarts to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. But this year, the Triwizard Tournament includes four competitors – some unknown person has submitted Harry’s name. Harry’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament threatens to unravel everything Harry loves about his life at Hogwarts. Rita Skeeter, special correspondent, fills the newspaper with lies about him, while Ron has stopped talking to him, and he has no idea how to prepare for facing and overcoming unknown tasks he is magically bound to participate in for the Triwizard Tournament. Not to mention difficulty handling his newfound desire to talk to Cho Chang. With his world shifting underneath his feet, Harry finds support and guidance from the people around him as he encounters unforeseen challenges.

In the fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, Rowling introduces new characters and complexities that both reveal and obscure overarching plot lines. More information brings more misunderstanding about what happened in the past and what the implications will be in the future. The new professor, who turns out to be a Death Eater in disguise, shifts everybody’s understanding of the past because they had all believed him to be dead. Meanwhile, Voldemort’s return to power complicates relationships as levels of secrecy and protection are restored. Throughout all this, Rowling quietly draws attention to obstacles in forming relationships, and how they manage to exist and thrive anyway. Rowling parallels social expectations in how people react to giants and house elves, invoking quick and thoughtless reactions from some characters, and unswerving acceptance and loyalty from others. As always, Rowling skillfully manages to weave all these elements together into a cohesive whole that reflects Harry’s growth through adolescence. Although the story focuses on Harry, the cast of characters and plot points in the larger wizarding world grow significantly as Harry gains greater awareness of what is happening around him, and as he learns the importance of other people in times of need.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is in close competition for my favorite Harry Potter book. I love how Rowling expands Harry’s world to include international characters, and also brings back characters from past books. I was just as heartbroken as Harry was to hear that the Quidditch Cup was cancelled for the year, but was equally excited for the Triwizard Tournament. Everything that happens in this book evokes the same reaction for me as it does for Harry - the injustice of Rita Skeeter’s articles, the frustration of temporarily losing Ron as a friend, and the overwhelming disbelief at Voldemort’s return. If you’ve been following the series – as everyone should be – the emotional attachment to these characters just continues to grow as everything in Harry’s world becomes more intricately connected.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great Gatsby (the movie)

The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrman

I read “The Great Gatsby” way back when in high school and wasn’t impressed. But I know there are a lot of people out there who love this book. So I gave it some time, read it again, and was slightly less unimpressed. OK, it’s a pretty good book, but still, so what? So I let some more time pass, and read it again. And again. With each subsequent reading, “The Great Gatsby” improves as a novel, but the overriding sense I take away is “what’s the big deal?” However, I am completely blown away by the Baz Luhrman film adaptation of the novel. It brings the novel to life in a way that just doesn’t translate for me on the page. This isn’t quite a movie review, but here is what I take away from “The Great Gatsby” the movie that doesn’t come across for me in the novel.

“The Great Gatsby” tells a story of transition, a blending of multiple worlds. Both the past and the present, the haves and the have-nots, the hope for the future and the dashed dreams that lurk just around the corner, both those from the past and those yet to come. Gatsby lies at the intersection of all those transitions, functioning as the heart, soul, and embodiment of all those conflicting expectations. The myth precedes the man, and the myth attracts every follower except the ones who matter most. Nick is the only person ever invited to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties, and he is invited because he provides a direct connection to Daisy, the woman who Gatsby loves. Living in a combination of past hopes and future dreams, Gatsby unknowingly finds himself trapped in a fantasy world. Only Gatsby the legend actually exists, for nobody knows the man. When reality crashes into Gatsby’s painstakingly constructed existence, the impact is both resounding and unnoticeable. The legend of Gatsby slowly drifts away, forgotten, but Gatsby’s world shatters.

The movie superbly illustrates the conflicting worlds of the legendary and actual Gatsby. The glitzy, glamorous, gaudy parties are too over-the-top to be believable, adding to the myth of Gatsby. Contrary to the parties, the valley of ashes lies between Gatsby and the city, the two places where the myth of Gatsby holds the most traction. The valley of ashes visually and physically represents the poverty so desperately suppressed in Gatsby’s myth. Everything connects to the valley of ashes, whether though broken and deceitful relationships, business transactions that reinforce hierarchies of power, or just the act of passing through poverty without seeing. But that’s what T.J. Eckleburg does. The forgotten glasses on the billboard sit above the valley of ashes, watching everything.

Yes, there are a lot of annoying cinematic effects that distract from the movie rather than contributing to the visual representation of myth vs. reality, but this movie is amazing. One of my other favorite parts of the movie is a quote Nick repeats a few times, saying that he finds himself “both within and without.” Within and without what? He is drawn into the myth of Gatsby, finding himself within the legend, but he is without means to participate in the myth. He is central to the tangled circle of relationships, but maintains an outsider perspective. He is within and without in so many ways, as is everyone else. I love the visual representation the movie offers on the world of Gatsby, emphasizing the imbalances and dichotomies that come with living through a constructed self rather than actual reality (although reality is not without its own difficulties). Now I have to read the novel again to see how the lessons come through in the book after watching the movie.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – Douglas Adams

One unremarkable afternoon, an unremarkable airport becomes the cause of great uproar due to “an act of God.” Inexplicably, something blew up, resulting in one missing person, but no casualties. The next morning, private detective Dirk Gently remains blissfully unaware of this “act of God” as he blusters around five hours late for his morning appointment. To his great consternation, he discovers that his client has died of a most improbable suicide, or less likely, a murder. As his day rolls on, filled with more and more strange coincidences and connections, Dirk sets out to uncover the incredible truth behind these two amazing events, determined to figure out which God has been causing trouble, why, and how these disparate accidents are actually inextricably linked to each other. As generally happens with these kinds of things, the big picture is unbelievably complicated, and can only be resolved with the holistic perspective of a private detective from a holistic detective agency.

“The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” is the second novel by Douglas Adams featuring Dirk Gently, holistic detective. Adams is especially adept at writing grand philosophical statements and arguments that undermine rational thought processing, resulting in undeniable yet unbelievable truths. The strength of his statements is reinforced by his chosen narrative, a holistic detective who seeks the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The irrational, implausible, and disparate all become beautifully and perfectly aligned in the world of Dirk Gently. Moreover, Adams writes with unexpected and incisive humor that perfectly captures the frustrations and absurdity of the human condition. His metaphors and illogical arguments connect the most unexpected elements, creating vivid descriptions to a degree that “a box of chocolates” just can’t muster. Both entertaining and mind-boggling, Adams will have you laughing out loud as you ponder the possibility of the impossible.

I love Adams’ work because of the originality, unexpectedness, and humor in his tone. Adams rarely crosses into the vulgar sarcasm that so often accompanies science fiction, keeping his arguments and criticisms more insightful than disparaging. However, “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” is not my favorite work by Adams. Perhaps because I couldn’t devote my full attention to reading this novel, and because it took me almost two full weeks to finish the novel, I had a hard time following the plot. Every once in a while I could understand how he was drawing conclusions based on earlier happenings in the novel, but for the most part, I seemed to be riding along with the arguments rather than building on the foundation of previous events. It’s hard to find the fundamental interconnectedness of things when you can’t keep all the things in your head. Disconnections aside, Adams is always a worthwhile read just for the entertainment value alone. Whether or not his arguments make sense, they always make you laugh.