Mundane and marvelous

Michiko Kakutani likes Harry Potter #7:

It is Ms. Rowling’s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent — coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating — and an epic hero, kin to everyone from the young King Arthur to Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.

In doing so, J. K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe, which may be one reason the “Potter” books have spawned such a passionate following and such fervent exegesis. With this volume, the reader realizes that small incidents and asides in earlier installments (hidden among a huge number of red herrings) create a breadcrumb trail of clues to the plot, that Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.

Postscript: Although Kakutani is careful to avoid spoilers, her comments do imply an answer to one of the major questions in the series: does Harry ultimately survive? If you’re planning to read the book soon anyway, you might want to skip this (and other) reviews.

Good!Snape …


(Via Galley Slaves and Ross Douthat.)


Jonathan Last on Transformers:

Now that I have some distance, it occurs to me that Transformers is actually important in that it does something that’s never been done before–it is not just critic-proof, it is judgment proof. Michael Bay has created a work which simply cannot be held to any sort of standard: artistic, logical, moral, critical. He has made a movie which simply is. This is the Holy Grail of modern moviemaking, I think. It’s Hollywood’s version of a perpetual motion machine.

Too damn many words?

Lexicon Lost:

Last spring, Gilles de Robien, France’s Education Minister, declared that schools in suburban Paris would teach more grammar and vocabulary to integrate immigrants and prevent future riots. The British Minister of State for Schools, Jim Knight, immediately called this Frenchie rot. He insisted that grammar and vocabulary are elitist, and therefore are what cause youth riots.


Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivivic
Would I could fathom thy matter specific
Lustily proud in the ether capacious
Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

(Via a pretentious windbag.)

In the key of aarrrrrr

Kashi, alias the invisible CapnFlynn, artist and animator, formerly the proprietress of Synonyms and Sugar (one of the ten best-named weblogs ever), has illustrated a book, The Voyage to Ruin, by H.L. Trombley. According to the website,

For the sinking of her ship and the death of her lover, pirate Captain Franceline Drake seeks revenge on Captain Acheron Zeal of Her Majesty’s Navy. For her most terrible crimes against the ships of Camembert, Zeal pursues Drake across the seas and skies of the Quadra Terrarum. And in the midst of the intrigue and mystery, the fate of a man named Flynn Freeborn will follow in their wake.

If you think you’d might enjoy a “pirate adventure fantasy,” check it out. There’s further information here.

Only apparently real

The first Philip K. Dick book I ever bought. I now have more titles by Dick on my shelves than by any other writer.

It’s Philip K. Dick week. Four of his novels are being reissued by the Library of America: The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It’s about time. The Man in the High Castle is an obvious choice: it’s possibly his best, and it’s one of his more approachable titles for non-SF readers. ((Eve Tushnet comments on the The Man in the High Castle here (scroll down to February 4, 2006).)) The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is also outstanding. Ubik, however, is a mess. It should have been Dick’s masterpiece, but the first seventy or so pages are so painfully bad that I can’t recommend it. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is included, I suspect, because a popular movie that I hated was based loosely — very loosely — on it. Instead of the latter two novels, I would have suggested Martian Timeslip and a selection of his short stories.

The new edition provided the occasion for Charles McGrath to write an account of Dick, emphasizing Dick’s mental instability, amphetamine use and “pulpish sensibility.”

In the current issue of Commonweal, John Garvey writes a much more detailed and sympathetic appreciation of Dick’s work, focusing on the gnosticism of this most peculiar Episcopalian convert. (It’s not available online unless you have a subscription.) He comes much closer than McGrath as to why Dick is worth reading:

In these and his other stories, Dick creates characters struggle who not only for salvation, for ultimate truths, but sometimes merely to be decent human beings — and the two struggles are really one. What reality is and what it means to be authentically human are intrinsically linked. Dick’s answers, such as the are, range randomly from new-age nonsense, through his own episodes of delusion and paranoia, to a Gnostic Christianity that contains more of the pain and compassion of real Christianity than most Gnostic visions. Many Gnostic writings advance an elitism that delights in being among the chosen in who the divine light resides. Dick saw glimmers of the shattered divine light in many confused and struggling people, and he found something of cosmic significance there, both in the light and in the struggle.

A lot of movies have been made from Dick’s stories. I’ve only seen Blade Runner, which I loathed — I had read the book, which the movie betrayed. I may watch A Scanner Darkly someday, but I expect that it will also disappoint me. I gather that the dramatic works that best evoke Dick’s spirit are not directly based on his work, e.g., The Matrix (which I haven’t seen) and Serial Experiments Lain. Satoshi Kon’s new movie, Paprika, has been described as the collision of Hello Kitty and Philip K. Dick.

Most encouraging news so far this year

In TV’s worst spring in recent memory, a startling number of Americans drifted away from television the past two months: More than 2.5 million fewer people were watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox than at the same time last year, statistics show.


NBC set a record last month for its least-watched week during the past 20 years, and maybe ever — then broke it a week later. This is the least popular season ever for CBS’ “Survivor.” ABC’s “Lost” has lost nearly half its live audience — more than 10 million people — from the days it was a sensation. “The Sopranos” (a show that has earned broadcast-network-like ratings in the past) is ending on HBO, and the response is a collective yawn.

Events like “American Idol” on Fox (which is owned by News Corp.) and “Dancing With the Stars” on ABC (owned by The Walt Disney Co.) are doing the most to prop up the industry. But still, in the six weeks after Daylight Savings Time started in early March, prime-time viewership for the four biggest broadcast networks was down to 37.6 million people, from 40.3 million during the same period in 2006, according to Nielsen Media Research.

(Via Chizumatic.)

Not so obscure

Joseph Bottum today reprinted a July, 2000 article in which he called for a revival of Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner stories:

In the deliberate tone of the stories and the matching of the writing’s pitch to its subject, in the uniting of the religious element with the detective’s action and the sense of good’s battle against evil in the solution of a crime, only G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown belongs beside Melville Davisson Post’s Uncle Abner.

I’ve never read Post; perhaps I will.

Bottum’s article is outdated in one respect: it’s not hard to find Uncle Abner in 2007. Bottum himself includes a link to, where Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries is listed as “in stock.” If you’re broke or impatient, you can read the collection online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

“There can be a Last Judgement …

… but no last non-judgementalism.”

This is not to say that great art and writing requires Christianity. Far from it. But I think that art beyond a certain level requires belief in something beyond the everyday material reality. Homer wrote great poetry because he wrote of the struggles of men against fate and the caprices of the gods. Virgil dealt with the conflicting moral claims that resulted from an emerging sense of objective, philosophically-based morality vs. a lingering conviction that it was necessary to do the will of the gods. Norse mythology dealt with a pantheon which was itself doomed, and yet that sense of looming destruction also held out hope for a world reborn without the pain and conflict of the present one. All of these can inspire great art.

Perhaps because it is such a modern, urban, middle-class phenomenon, the current round of strident atheist writers project instead a sense of inward-looking self satisfaction. A smallness. How could someone produce much interesting in the way of art who adhered to Richard Dawkins’ “secular commandments” which include things like “Do not indoctrinate your children” and “Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)”?

Agents of their own destruction

Via Mark Shea, a review of Children of Húrin:

While casual readers of “Lord of the Rings” may be put off, “The Children of Húrin” does not require “Silmarillion”-grade geekery. Any midlevel Tolkien fans with an appetite for the stranger, darker corners of his realm will rapidly be caught up in the fiery saga of Húrin, who defies the dreaded Morgoth and is mercilessly tortured, and Túrin, the legendary warrior whose great deeds drag everything and everyone he loves toward total disaster. At least, they’ll get swept up in it if they can plow through the first few pages.

Initially, “The Children of Húrin has that ye-olde-homework feeling of Tolkien at his most laborious. Here is the third sentence of Chapter I: “His daughter Glóredhel wedded Haldir son of Halmir, lord of the men of Brethil; and at the same feast his son Galdor the Tall wedded Hareth, the daughter of Halmir.” (Furthermore, none of the people in that sentence ever reappear.) I still had to refer to Christopher Tolkien’s thorough and helpful maps, indexes and appendixes every few pages to keep the geographical and genealogical nomenclature straight — and I went back to “The Silmarillion” a couple of times to figure out the historical context — but I minded that less and less as the hours grew longer and Túrin’s fell struggle against innermost and outermost evil grew ever more dire.