Revisiting Harry Potter: Sirius Black and other concerns

Oh, third book. I wish I had made time to write about you last week, for truly you are the sparkliest of all the Harry Potter books. Your beauty makes me want to sing songs of praise. But I do not do that, because I have roommates and they already think I’m weird. I will get to Sirius Black in a minute, but first I would like to speak in praise of some other aspects of the third book. (Obviously, this will be all spoilers all the time.)

One, I don’t know why everyone makes such a big deal about Harry being the youngest Quidditch player in a century. We all know Harry is a rock star of Quidditch, and I’m not trying to take away from that but you know — first years aren’t allowed to try out.

Two, you know how I was whining about the Hagrid plotlines? This is the gold standard of all Hagrid plotlines. It integrates beautifully with everything else in the book — both Hermione’s stuff with the Time-Turner and the major plotline of the book, which is the escape of Sirius Black and the fallout therefrom. It’s also a plotline with a Hagrid monster where you are legitimately on Hagrid’s side. Hagrid’s not making Harry’s life harder by doing what he’s doing here. He designed a good Care of Magical Creaetures lesson and taught it responsibly. The only reason shit all went to hell is that the Malfoys are jerks. If Neville’s grandmother was as much of a jerk as the Malfoys, Madam Hooch would have been fired in the first book.

Three, Snape is a dick. He’s a dick. How are you going to insult a thirteen-year-old kid’s dead father? If you can’t think of anything nice to say about a thirteen-year-old’s dead father, that is an awesome time to JUST SHUT UP.

(You know what I love in the movie of this book? I love it so much when Snape and Sirius are in the Shrieking Shack and Sirius says, “Oh why don’t you go play with your chemistry set?” I loooooved that. Gary Oldman made it speak volumes about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Aw Gary Oldman.)

And four, I think it super sucks that Mrs. Weasley is pulling to keep Harry from finding out that Sirius Black is after him. That is dumb because Harry pokes his nose into everything and will inevitably end up somewhere he’s not supposed to be, but it’s also just bad parenting form. She should tell him the truth and be real about it. If you don’t tell the kids these things, they’re just going to learn everything on the street. Which is exactly what does happen! Boo.

And now, on to Sirius Black. Some people in this blogosphere have made the claim that Sirius Black sucks. Some people say that Sirius Black is irresponsible and a drag on Harry’s life. To those people THAT ARE ALICE HI ALICE I LIKE YOU BUT YOU ARE CRAZY TO HAVE THIS OPINION, I say this: You do not have Harry’s best interests at heart.

I get sort of dorky when I start talking about Harry, because I grew up with him and now I am much older than him so I feel protective in the same way I feel protective of the kids I used to baby-sit for who can now drive and are applying to colleges. But I want to prove my point because it is correct and opposition to it is incorrect so I’m going to go ahead and be dorky. Harry’s a kid, and kids need to know that they are somebody’s most important thing in the world. Until Sirius shows up, and then again after Sirius is gone, there is no character who consistently lets Harry know, hey, you are my most important thing. The speed with which Harry comes to expect this from Sirius and depend on receiving it should tell you that this is something this kid needs.

Which is why I love and defend Sirius Black in spite of his flaws, which I know that he has and I have never tried to deny. Let’s contemplate timelines for just a minute, shall we? Sirius is in Azkaban for twelve years prior to learning that Pettigrew is out and about and a threat to Harry. Approximately 4380 days. You want to know how many days Sirius is in Azkaban after he learns that Harry’s in danger?

The answer is zero. Zero days. He escapes from Azkaban that night. Here is proof:

There was a thud on the wood, and Harry was sure Mr. Weasley had banged his fist on the table. “Molly, how many times do I have to tell you? They didn’t report it in the press because Fudge wanted it kept quiet, but Fudge went out to Azkaban the night Black escaped.”

and

Madam Rosmerta let out a long sigh. “Is it true he’s mad, Minister?”

“I wish I could say that he was,” said Fudge slowly. “I certainly believes his master’s defeat unhinged him for a while. The murder of Pettigrew and all those Muggles was the action of a cornered and desperate man — cruel…pointless. Yet I met Black on my last inspection of Azkaban. You know, most of the prisoners in there sit muttering to themselves in the dark; there’s no sense in them…but I was shocked at how normal Black seemed. He spoke quite rationally to me. It was unnerving. You’d have thought he was merely bored — asked if I’d finished with my newspaper, cool as you please, said he missed doing the crossword.”

Which is to say, the day on which Sirius saw the picture of Pettigrew on Ron’s shoulder in the newspaper, that exact day, is the day he escaped from prison. Basically Sirius can deal with the hellish suicidal-depression torment of Azkaban indefinitely, but when he gets one hint that Harry might be in danger, he goes, “Fuck. This. Noise,” and is out of that jail in a hot second. He is brave and resourceful and devoted to Harry, and I love Harry so so much, and when people are brave and resourceful and devoted on his behalf, it buys a hefty amount of affection from me.

So, okay, Sirius comes to save Harry from Peter Pettigrew. That’s brave and great, but you could make the argument that it’s his moral duty. He’s the only one who knows what Pettigrew is, plus he has that subsidiary revenge motive that’s been cooking for over a decade. After that’s done, though, he could legitimately decline to take responsibility for Harry. His connection to Harry was James, right, and James is dead. He has not been part of Harry’s life for the past twelve years. Harry has a home already, and as far as Sirius knows, it’s the happiest home ever. Sirius does not need to make Harry his problem. But this never seems to cross his mind. What he says to Harry is, like, the perfect thing:

“I’m also — I don’t know if anyone ever told you — I’m your godfather.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” said Harry.

“Well…your parents appointed me your guardian,” said Black stiffly. “If anything happened to them…”

Harry waited. Did Black mean what he thought he meant?

“I’ll understand, of course, if you want to stay with your aunt and uncle,” said Black. “But…well…think about it. Once my name’s cleared…if you wanted a…a different home…”

Excuse me. I have something in my eye.

Again, let’s remember, this man is nobody to Harry, and the first thing he does when they have a quiet moment is to offer to be his parent, if there is room in Harry’s life for that. He’s basically telling Harry that he will love him and take care of him forever.

And hey, here’s an update from the future: That is exactly what Sirius does do! He promises to take care of Harry and then he takes care of Harry. Circumstances are against him in this, I’ll grant you — not his fault! Voldemort’s fault! — but Harry can expect, and Sirius never lets him down, that always no matter what forever he will be the top number one highest priority in Sirius’s life. Harry has people who love him but he belongs to nobody until Sirius comes along. Sirius is the only person of whom Harry ever expects parenting, and that is why I like him and you should too.

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The new Hawkeye comics you maybe haven’t yet realized you want to read but you totally should because they are amazing. Wait, hear me out.

I know! You don’t want to read the new Hawkeye comics because comics are expensive, Hawkeye is boring, and Marvel comics are too mythology-heavy for a newcomer to leap into. But you’re so wrong. Unbeknownst to you, you really do want to read the new Hawkeye comics. Let me explain real quick why your objections to doing so are inadequate.

1. Single-issue comics are an expensive habit. So borrow a friend’s. Or if you can’t borrow a friend’s, just pay the three bucks a month. If you take a year’s subscription through Marvel, it’s still about the same cost as one hardback book. You buy books all the time. Subscribe to a comic this one time. (Or wait for the trade paperback to come out in March of this year.) The covers are stylish, and as I’ll describe in more detail below, the comics are very very very good.

See? Attractive.

2. Hawkeye was the boringest Avenger in the Avengers movie. Yup, he was. That is a correct assessment. Partly that’s the writing — it’s hard to be cool and interesting when you’re (spoiler alert) turned evil within five minutes — and partly it’s that Jeremy Renner (sorry, Hurt Locker fans! I am sure he was great in Hurt Locker but I’ll never know because I’m not watching that movie) is bland like oatmeal and a bad archer. Plus, when everybody else in the movie gets a bunch of opportunities to be awesome and ass-kicky, and one character gets very few and has no superpowers, you obviously end up thinking of that one character as the weakest link.

Luckily for us all, the Hawkeye comics in question are about Hawkeye when he’s not hanging around with the Avengers; i.e., when he’s just being a regular guy trying to do right by the world. The first issue is about him trying to get his shady thug landlord not to raise the rent on all the tenants in his building. The second issue’s about him trying to foil a robbery. The writer, Matt Fraction, has said that his vision of Hawkeye is someone who just can’t help being a good guy — like, he’d help you move your couch even if it was raining outside (says Matt Fraction). What can I say? I’m a sucker for that kind of thing.

Also, he acquires a dog. He renames it but it’ll always be Pizza Dog in my heart.

Ehn is right.

3. All the mythology is too hard to get into. Nope, it isn’t. This one’s my big reason for never reading any Marvel comics — the canon’s too voluminous — but the Hawkeye books are very light on the mythology. The writers aren’t telling a big extended story. They’re telling a bunch of small stories. If you’ve seen a few of the superhero movies in the last few years you’ll be fine.

So okay. That’s your objections resoundingly put paid to. Now that I’ve dealt with the reasons not to not read the Hawkeye comics, here are the reasons to read them:

1. The two main characters are a delight (to each other and to you). The two main characters are Clint Barton (regular Hawkeye) and Kate Bishop (also somehow Hawkeye? I don’t know the mythology on this and you don’t need to either; she shoots like Hawkeye does), and they enjoy and excel at working as a team. I was in for this as soon as Clint 1) talked all about how great and awesome Kate is, as you the reader are watching her be great and awesome; and 2) said he didn’t want to sleep with her. Yay! Not everyone has to constantly want to sleep with everyone else. Kate and Clint get a kick out of each other, and they have each other’s backs. What more could you ask?

2. Everyone wears purple. This isn’t anything. I like purple, that’s all. The palate of the comic is overwhelmingly purple. Yay.

3. The art is really nice. I guess the purple thing could have been subsumed into this, but I love purple so much! It feels wrong to pretend I love purple less than I do. Anyway, the art is really nice as a whole. The action shots are elegant and cool. The quieter, chattier panels do an amazing job of conveying subtext through body language. There are a few panels I kept going back to because the way the characters’ faces were tilted and how their arms went, damn it just said everything. Way to go, artist David Aja.

4. The dialogue is understatedly wonderful. It is all charming all the time. Hawkeye’s inner monologue is extra charming, especially when you consider that inner monologues are basically voiceovers, and voiceovers are hard. These ones are the perfect balance of sincerity and humor and self-deprecation. I know I’ve just two seconds ago praised the dynamic between the two main characters, but I’m going to do it again because this page, where Hawkeye is blown away by how perfect Kate is at her job, blows me away with how perfect everyone who worked on this page is at their jobs.

Perfect.

There is also this joke. It’s maybe not the first time this joke has been made, but it’s made completely charmingly here.

5. The stories have complex, interesting, inventive structures. Y’all know I love a story with a tight structure. I particularly love Hawkeye #3 for this, although all of the issues are good. The unifying theme of #3 is that Hawkeye has made nine really bad decisions that day, and he ticks them off for you one by one and that’s the story. It all has its roots in Hawkeye trying to get some tape to label all his ridiculous trick arrows (this in the vein of Hawkeye being the Avenger who’s just a dude), but as he’s trying to get that task accomplished, he ends up in a big car chase shooting trick arrows pretty much at random. A small inset panel shows a close-up of the arrow with a label (acid arrow, smoke bomb arrow, etc.), and below that is a panel showing the damage being done by each. It is so damn cool.

6. When I finished reading the six issues that existed as of December which is when I read them, I felt real sad. I felt so bummed out that I had reached the end of the comics to be read, I read two of them over again. (The third one and the last one.) Then I gave all six to Mumsy to read (she liked them), and when she gave them back I read them again. And then the first one again. After that I let Legal Sister read them, and after that I returned them to Captain Hammer, whose comics they were. As soon as I got home that evening I regretted giving them up because I wanted to read them all again. This is all in the course of one day. That’s how delightful and readable these comics are. Read them tomorrow.

Aaaaaa, I love this comic so much. When the first volume comes out in March, I will want to buy a copy for everyone I like. It’s just so good. Read it. Read it. Read it. You’ll thank me later.

Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt

OMG y’all. THIS BOOK. READ IT NOW.

It’s taken me a little while to spit this review out, because I feel like this is or will be one of those books that gets a lot of hype. I don’t want my review to become one of an avalanche of reviews that raves about a book, and then you are like, “Hey the people really love this book, Imma read it too,” and then you read it with your expectations sky high and when it doesn’t turn out to be the second coming of The Color Purple you’re like, “Why is everybody screaming about this book? It’s fine. It’s not that great. GOD.”

I don’t want that to happen because I think Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a lovely book, and I feel fond and protective of it. So I’m going to start by tempering your expectations. I want you to understand, though, that these criticisms made no difference to my enjoyment of the book, and I am saying them for your sake, to maximize the chances that you will enjoy this book when you read it, not because any of what I’m about to say interfered substantially with my enjoyment of the book. For it did not. But if you do wait to read the book, and you don’t like it, I don’t want you coming back here being like, “GOD could she be making more of an effort to remind us that wolves are a Theme?” Because I will already have warned you.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is Carol Rifka Brunt’s first novel. It’s about a teenage girl called June in 1987 whose uncle Finn dies of AIDS shortly after painting a portrait of June with her sister Greta, once June’s closest friend and now something of an adversary. Bereft after losing Finn, the only person who ever seemed to understand her, June secretly befriends his long-time boyfriend, Toby.

Okay. Criticisms first. Raving afterwards. This is a first novel and there are some things. Some emotional beats get drummed a teensy bit too hard. There is a plotline about a guy at June’s school who constantly invites her to play Dungeons and Dragons. He seems nice and normal, which is unusual for a fictional portrayal of D&D players, but June never actually does play Dungeons and Dragons with him, and I’m not sure what the point of that was. There was also a lot of wolf imagery. Usually it was cool and effective, but there were times as the book went on that I wanted to ask Brunt gently to give us a break from it until the (I presumed) quiet, wrenching denouement, at which point I would permit its reintroduction.

(Then I checked the end to see if the denouement was quiet and wrenching. It was.)

What I’m saying is, no book is perfect, and this one isn’t either. There. I’ve inoculated you against that expectations thing. (Not really. There’s no vaccine for that although it would be great if there were.) Now I will say that I loved this book with all my heart. When I wasn’t reading it, I felt sort of bereft and wished I could be reading it; and when I was reading it, and had to stop reading it, I felt resentful. Finishing it made me sad, both because the denouement was, as previously mentioned, quiet and wrenching, but also because afterward I wanted to be able to keep reading it and I couldn’t.

Some of the reviews I read of this made it sound like it was a book about family tragedy and finding out secrets, but it really isn’t like that. There are secrets but they aren’t secrets about family scandal and betrayal, just secret hurt feelings, secret wishes to return to some previous, happier way of being. The scope of the book is small. Brunt is telling a lovely, specific story about family, and silence and absence, and how easily the space between people can widen and widen:

Greta went to high school and I was still in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got…weirder. None of those things should have mattered, but I guess they did. I guess they were like water. Soft and harmless until enough time went by. Then all of a sudden you found yourself with the Grand Canyon on your hands.

Brunt has that knack for giving emotional heft to very small hurts and kindnesses. It’s hard to quote these because they’re all about the context, but I’m going to just quote from this one scene where Toby flicks a penny into the parking lot as June is leaving and tells her to check if it lands heads-up, because if it has he’ll have given her good luck. They are both reeling from the loss of Finn, and June is still not sure about Toby and mainly agrees to be around him because he is a connection to Finn, and they are both tentative and awkward and unsure of each other. But:

I knew you couldn’t make luck that way, but still I kind of hoped it was heads. I started to run to the spot, but even from a few feet away I could already see it was tails. I bent and picked up the penny anyway. Then I turned to Toby and gave him a smile and the thumbs-up. He didn’t need to know.

There are similar small moments between June and her older sister Greta. Some of the stuff about Greta being troubled is overdone and under-resolved, but everything about the two of them being sisters, and growing apart, and trying to get back to their former closeness through a thicket of hurt feelings and resentment, is just so sincere and lovely.

Oh, and there is all this business with the portrait Finn paints of Greta and June, that’s gorgeous gorgeous. And the end is perfect, and the denouement made me get all throat-achey. And Finn’s last letter to June made me cry several actual tears, which is pretty rare for me! And the title is one of my favorite titles for a book that I’ve encountered in a long time. I just loved this book, I loved it. The library copy on my Nook expired right after I finished reading it, and I wanted to check it right back out and read it all over again. Please get it and read it now, and then come back and tell me how much you loved it. Ana! Jill! Chris! (among others)

I read an interview with Lizzy Caplan recently where she said (of the group of friends in her movie The Bachelorette), “There’s something really amazing about being able to be as cruel as you’d be to your sister, to your friend.” I just — no! That’s not a thing! I deeply dislike that that’s the way family/friend relationships are often portrayed on TV and in movies, that you can just say whatever cruel horrible thing in the heat of the moment, but then afterward as long as you defend the person to outsiders, your loved ones know that you care about them and you are the best of besties. I disagree! Defending your loved ones to outsiders is easy and rare (and gives you a joyous feeling of moral clarity); being careful of them on all the regular days is tricky and confusing and every day. All of which soapboxiness is to say, I wanted to hug Carol Rifka Brunt for writing a book about how you have to be kind and careful of the people you love, that it is worth the effort to think about how your behavior affects them. Because when you don’t do that, you lose people. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a book about how we lose people, and how we (sometimes) get them back.

I’d link to other reviews but I sort of don’t want you to read any other reviews because I am anxious that you should read this book first and reviews afterwards. Once you already love it and are no longer be susceptible to too-high expectations. So yes! Go forth and do so!

Review: Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine

Before we get to the excellent Delusions of Gender, which I can’t believe it took me so long to read, a word about my blogging habits. I have been (sing it with me if you know the words) the worst blogger ever. My commute, while not bad for New York, is a time-killer, I’m trying very hard to be as social a butterfly as my introverty brain and publishing job budget will permit me, and recently I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to learn to pronounce Russian personal pronouns. They are harder to pronounce than you’d think. All this has meant that I’ve had even less time to blog than I’ve generally had since moving to New York. I am trying to figure out how to deal with this. I may take a blogging break. I may become like the lovely and wondrous Trapunto, and just be the best commenter you ever saw, all over the blogosphere. Who knows, y’all. If you have any genius suggestions about how to budget blogging time, please tell me. I love you and believe in your wisdom.

And now, Cordelia Fine!

Delusions of Gender is a book you’ve probably heard of if you spend a lot of time reading Nymeth’s blog. As ever when she loves a book, she advocates for it most awesomely, and in the end you give in and get it at the library and then you are like, …Why didn’t I get this sooner? After four years you’d think I’d have learned my lesson on this and that I would just get all the books Nymeth loves, but I have a dumb brain, I guess? And took a year to read Delusions of Gender? Ner.

It is hard to know what to say about Delusions of Gender when Nymeth and, more recently, Proper Jenny have covered it so eloquently and thoroughly! But nevertheless I will try. Delusions of Gender is that irresistible species of thing, an intelligent, thoughtful, occasionally snarky debunking of foolish people who are using bad scientific methods to prop up nonsense stereotypes. I love snarky debunkings of things, but I especially love snarky debunkings of sexism disguised as science. Cordelia Fine starts with studies of social interactions, studies that claim to prove that women are more empathetic, less aggressive, kinder, better at reading your mind with their uncanny woman powers, and what have you. This was all well and good and fun to read about because I love reading about Studies. Prime a woman to think about the stereotype that women are bad at math, and she’ll do worse on a math test. Stereotype threat hurts everyone, y’all.

I read the second third of the book while on a picnic that also featured wine, so it’s possible I’m biased, but it seemed to me that the second third of the book was way the awesomest. In the second third, Cordelia Fine takes on studies of brains and the things they purport to show about gender. Although I think of myself as a slightly cynical person and a fairly critical thinker, I was a little shocked at the shabbiness of the science in these gender experiments. The sample sizes are often tiny (because brain scans are expensive), the results are contradictory and/or do not replicate (but those studies don’t get published because they are boring), and neuroimaging technology and research is still very young, so sometimes researchers get overexcitable about what results are statistically significant and what ones are not.

ALSO. I learned about this excellent (well, very bad. do not do it. but excellent for me to know about) thing called reverse inference. This is a thing, in fact, that I already knew about from life (it’s basically, “Witches burn; wood also burns; therefore witches are made of wood”), but here’s what it is in neuroscience: It’s when you do an experiment, and in the course of the experiment the amygdala lights up, and you know the amygdala also lights up when someone is scared, so you are like, This proves that my experiment causes people to feel fear. Well, no. It just proves that your experiment causes people’s amygdalas to light up. We do not understand brains very well so who even knows what that means? And it turns out that a very lot of neuroscience studies dealing with gender do this reverse inference thing.

My favorite was when Cordelia Fine spent several pages detailing the shocking behavior of one Louann Brizendine (of Yale, Harvard, and Berkeley! Not some fly-by-night nonsense person!), whose book about gender differences cites lots of bad science and — well, look at this:

We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, “All of the therapists who showed these responses happen to be women.” For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.

!!! And this is not a one-off! Brizendine does the same thing again not two pages later, citing another all-women study to prove that women are good at emotional mirroring. She probably does it a lot more times in her book, but Cordelia Fine has other things to do than spend a whole book making fun of Louann Brizendine.

(Fortunately for us all, Mark Libermann does not. Check it out if you want to feel righteously indignant — and who doesn’t want to feel righteously indignant?)

The final third of the book — also very good but not as good as the second part because less neuroscience and I love neuroscience because I LOVE BRAINS — is about how human people are awful at not passing on gender stereotypes to their children. And that is fine! says Cordelia Fine (whoa, I did not do that on purpose, y’all, I swear that just happened), as long as we recognize that this doesn’t suggest that gender stereotypes are hardwired into our brains. It just means gender is super important in the world, and children live in the world, and their brains are made for learning. A good bit:

Once children have personally relevant boxes in which to file what they learn (labeled “Me” versus “Not Me”), this adds an extra oomph to the drive to solve the mysteries of gender. Development psychologists Carol Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children become “gender detectives,” in search of clues as to the implications of belonging to the male or female tribe. Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The academic literature is scattered with anecdotal reports of preschoolers’ amusingly flawed scientific accounts of gender difference: “One child…dangling his legs with his father in a very cold lake, announced ‘only boys like cold water, right Dad?’ Such examples suggest that children are actively seeking and ‘chewing’ on information about gender, rather than passively absorbing it from the environment.”

Interesting, right? This book is ALL THE INTERESTING THINGS.

Now I feel like reading more books about gender. If only some lovely person, someone who had been complimented extravagantly and often in this blog for her wonderful reading taste and who, say, had read a very lot of books about gender essentialism and other gender issues for her thesis which I’m sure was super fascinating in its own right, if only some person fitting that description would say, “Oh Jenny. Now that you have finished Delusions of Gender, and wish for more awesome gender books, the awesomest if you are in the mood for X is this book, and if you are in the mood for Y it is this book. I will instruct you about all the good gender books.” I don’t know who could possibly do that. I just wish that would happen.

OR if anybody knows of some awesomesauce neuroscience books I would be interested in that too. Whatever you’ve got.

Archer’s Goon, Diana Wynne Jones

March has whizzed by in a whirlwind of cherry blossoms and other even lovelier events, doing me a great disservice by never letting me catch my breath long enough to schedule a post about a Diana Wynne Jones book for the Diana Wynne Jones March operated by the wonderful Kristen of We Be Reading. March has happened so fast I didn’t even remember to relish March 4th, the only day of the year that’s a command. Ordinarily I say “March forth!” with tedious frequency on that day, and this year I forgot. Sigh. March, you whirlwind vixen.

Archer’s Goon, fittingly enough in a post that began with a time gripe, is a book about the constraints of time. Howard’s father Quentin, a writer, has for years written 2000 words each month and sent them to a friend called Lovejoy as a way of keeping his creative juices flowing. This month, an enormous Goon turns up at the house demanding the 2000 words, which Quentin says he has already sent. The Goon says that Archer — apparently Lovejoy’s boss — hasn’t received the words and demands to have them. Howard’s family is gradually beseiged by a group of seven siblings (Archer, Dillian, Shine, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus, and yes, I have read Archer’s Goon often enough that I know those names in order by heart) who run various aspects of the town, are confined to stay within the town limits, and inexplicably seem desperate to acquire Quentin’s 2000 words.

As with many Diana Wynne Jones books, Archer’s Goon did not immediately take its place in my heart as a DWJ favorite. Because I apparently can’t talk about Diana Wynne Jones without saying “She’s better on a reread,” I’ll say it again. There are never too many times to say it! Diana Wynne Jones is better on a reread. And Archer’s Goon particularly is better on a reread. The plot is fairly complicated, and because it takes a while for most of the basic questions to be resolved, I missed a lot of the small, fun stuff about Archer’s Goon.

And the small fun stuff is what makes it so great. The power-mad siblings persecute Quentin relentlessly to make him give in and send them the words, and the things they invent to do, within their own spheres of power, are really funny and terrible. It’s brilliant fun how Diana Wynne Jones gradually lets you see the dynamics between the siblings: that Archer hates Dillian and Dillian hates him right back, but Dillian and Torquil are sort of allies. Sibling dynamics are DWJ’s best thing, and the Archer’s Goon siblings are, if not my favorites, at least in my top two. It’s between them and the Dark Lord of Derkholm family.

Moreover, the end of Archer’s Goon is one of the best and most satisfying endings of any of her books. A common and true complain about DWJ is that her endings can feel a little rushed and confusing, but not with Archer’s Goon. The characters realize things that they’ve been building up to realizing all along. The questions that were raised at the beginning get resolved. The good guys put paid to the bad guys. And the climactic fight is just so, so funny. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that I can never read the scene without picturing Diana Wynne Jones at her typewriter giggling madly as she wrote it all out. It’s the best.

As many longtime readers know, I am the hugest Diana Wynne Jones fan. As you may also know, she died last year, in March. I am so grateful for all the books of hers that we do have, and I am terribly sad that there won’t be any new ones forthcoming. But if you haven’t read anything by her, you are in for a treat.

They also read it:

things mean a lot
Books Love Me

Review: The Morning Gift, Eva Ibbotson

My scheme, intended to cheer me up from my mild post-Christmas sadness, was that in January I would order myself an Eva Ibbotson book from PaperbackSwap, one of the romances, as a comfort book. And then I would slowly order more Eva Ibbotson books, gradually, at the rate of one Eva Ibbotson book every few months, as I needed them, maybe alternating with some of the better Barbara Michaels books, and someday, a year or two from now, I would have all the comfort books I needed.

This was a drastic underestimation of how awful January was going to be. I will go ahead and say this is the worst January on record, including January 2005 which, as Januaries go, was very damn awful. The only difference is that I am older now, and better (don’t laugh, Mumsy, I think this is true!) at dealing with difficult months. I have better internal resources, and I am kinder to myself when things are going badly. Also in 2005 I didn’t know about gin or coffee. Or Friends. Or cheese fries. (Poor Past Jenny. How did she ever cope with life?) Yet in spite of all this, January 2012 was still worse. I turned out to need way more than just one Eva Ibbotson or Barbara Michaels book. I have ordered three so far, of which The Morning Gift was the first to arrive.

And you know what, just, WELL PLAYED ME. My plan to use Eva Ibbotson as a standby comfort author was absolutely spot on, one of the best comfort read plans I have ever concocted in the whole history of comfort plans. There is a quality to Eva Ibbotson’s romances of being sweet and comfortable and safe, like curling up in a plushy sort of hammock in a room scented with cinnamon and sandalwood while someone brings you ripe peach slices.

So, yeah, the plot. The Morning Gift is about this Austrian girl Ruth in Nazi times, who is stopped from leaving Austria because she once did some student socialist protest. Her family, not realizing that her visa is invalid, go ahead to London without her. Family friend and scientist Quin Somerville finds her and helps her get out of Austria by contracting a marriage of convenience that will allow her to be classified as a British citizen long enough to get her out of the country. Then they can annul the marriage. Y’all can see where this is headed because no fictional marriage of convenience has ever in the history of literature ended up as just a marriage of convenience. That would be contrary to the laws of fiction. In the meantime you get the joy of reading about the community of refugees in London where Ruth’s family lives, and about Ruth’s arrogant piano genius boyfriend (I was trying for “prodigy” and wrote “parody” instead), and about Ruth’s adventures in zoology school with all her lovely friends. Eva Ibbotson always makes me feel warm and fuzzy when she writes about communities, and these are communities based on real ones in her own life. So, double the warm fuzzies.

For those of you out there who have read Hilary McKay’s books about the Casson family — basically I am targeting this remark to my mother and Ana, but surely others of you know Hilary McKay! — I always think Eva Ibbotson’s heroines are often quite a lot like Caddy Casson. Smart and competent and a little scatty and weird in ways, but fundamentally really sweet and endearing. That was Ruth. At one point she jumps in the ocean to save a puppy. Wouldn’t you like to be friends with someone who would jump in the ocean to save a puppy?

And look, if you described this book as “too sweet to be wholesome” (which I’m afraid is what Mumsy will say) (but not really! because the sweetness is counterbalanced by the Nazi wartime setting!), I wouldn’t argue with you that much. And if you said the “bad” characters were drawn with a pretty broad brush, I would have no counterargument. But you know what? If I wanted moral complexity, I wouldn’t pick up a comfort book. Eva Ibbotson! Hooray!

Review: Watership Down, Richard Adams

Sometimes I do a quick search through my blog archives and find that I have somehow, in four years (four years!!), not reviewed a book that I love more than I love eating cheese fries while watching The Good Wife (in this case, more even than I would love eating cheese fries while watching Kalinda plan and execute a cold-blooded takedown of Dana). Watership Down is one such book. It is also an example of the phenomenon that a late conversion can make you more of a fanatic about something than if you loved it all along. My mother told me about Watership Down when I was in my early-to-mid teens, and I was like, “Oh, it’s about a psychic bunny rabbit and his bunny rabbit pals? Well I’m just going to rush right the hell out to read that one!”

However, if you haven’t read Watership Down, you should rush right the hell out to read it. It is the best ever.

Watership Down is about a rabbit called Hazel and his brother Fiver, who gets a premonition of danger to the warren where they live. When the leader of the warren refuses to listen to Fiver about this, Hazel and Fiver collect a small group of rabbits and flee the warren in search of a new home. As wanderers they are forced to behave in ways totally foreign to them, adjusting to meet the unexpected challenges they encounter, like not having any girl rabbits and not knowing how to get across rivers and making friends with birds and getting in fights with terrifying warrens full of creepy psychopath rabbits.

I find it difficult to enumerate the qualities that make Watership Down so wonderful, but I will try to tease out a few. I adore the way that Richard Adams develops Hazel from an average rabbit in an average warren to a leader of vision and courage. Adams manages this mostly through the eyes of the other rabbits: you see them begin to trust Hazel’s decisions more and more, and he sort of organically becomes their Chief Rabbit, and by the end any of them would die for him (and let’s face it, so would you). There is this marvelous scene towards the end where Hazel goes to confront the leader of an opposing warren, and for a scene that lasts a page and a half and consists only in Hazel talking quietly, it is just so badass.

Watership Down is also an excellent example, if you’re into that sort of thing, of a monomyth story. Richard Adams was strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell, and the story structure is very Odyssean, with the rabbits encountering danger after danger in order to find, and settle into, their home. There is the leader character and the supernatural aid character and the clever one and the strong one and the Neville one and the jester. You can’t not like this! It’s programmed into your brain to like this.

The way Richard Adams writes his rabbits is superb. They are really rabbits, not rabbit-shaped people like, say, the animals in Wind in the Willows. When they act, they act like rabbits would, or they at least acknowledge that their exceptional circumstances are forcing them to act differently than rabbits ordinarily would. That is great. Then on the other hand their speech patterns are those of mid-twentieth-century Brits, which look, there is a pretty fundamental layer of my consciousness at which proper books are the Chronicles of Narnia and proper characters talk like the Pevensies, so book characters who call each other “old chap” will please me more often than not.

I like plans. I like it in books and shows and things where the characters come up with a plan and then put the plan into action and then the plan works (or the plan encounters a roadblock and the plan-makers, thinking fast on their feet, alter the plan to adjust for the new wrinkle) and the desired effect is achieved. If I had been born in the days of Homer, I would compose an epic poem in praise of plans and plan-making, and I would sing it loudly at feasts and festivals. Because I love plans. And the Watership Down rabbits are always making plans, and that is another reason Watership Down is amazing.

Finally, if it weren’t for Watership Down, I would never have known about Mary Renault. I would have been part of the horde of people whose lives are currently impoverished by not knowing about Mary Renault. My mumsy told me about Mary Renault, and she had only read Mary Renault herself because one of the chapter epigraphs in Watership Down is from The King Must Die. I wouldn’t know about the Alexander books or The Charioteer! That would be terrible. Thanks, Watership Down!

P.S. SPOILERS. It is awesome that Bigwig’s final victory over General Woundwort is a psychological victory. I could read that scene every damn day.