Vacancy Filled

PHOTO / Marc van der Chijs

PHOTO / Marc van der Chijs

If it were possible to approach the subject of JK Rowling without discussing her previous work, I would do so. To mention the name “Harry Potter” is to bring up an entire slew of associations, whether positive, negative, or bored-to-tears indifferent. As a disclaimer, I must admit that I am a fan – the kind who always appreciated Rowling’s works on its own merits, first and foremost, and only then pinned a Hufflepuff badge on my backpack. I was, and still am, a devotee of the seven-book series, but I dislike the films, and stay away from the vast and – to me – frightening world of online fan-fiction.

It is as a writer rather than a celebrity that Rowling became a published author, and she wrote the Harry Potter books in a particular style. Her voice has always been uniquely hers, from the very first particularly, peculiarly, English sentence of the first book – “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first novel since she completed the Harry Potter series and its various offshoots, was promoted, disappointingly, as if it was an extension of the HP universe. The books filled the entire wall of shelves behind the Waterstones cash registers here in Oxford, the novel was promoted and given lengthy reviews in major magazines and newspapers, and it was generally treated as if it was going to be another merchandisable opportunity for the likes of Universal Studios and Sony (who each, respectively, runs the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, USA and the online virtual book-world Pottermore). While the reviews were very mixed, running the gamut from glowing to scathing, the book was generally treated as the work of celebrity rather than what it was: a first literary novel by an author who was (as she admitted to being) both proud of her book and wary of its reception.

Rowling has now proven that her voice is consistent. The language in the novel is simple and straightforward, while blindsiding the reader here and there with a brilliant observation or description that is shocking in its apparent clarity. Her vivid English-isms aren’t lost either: each section of the book opens with a quaint quote from a 17th century book of parish-council rules.

What is most amazing of all, however, is Rowling’s heretofore hidden talent for writing some truly despicable real-world characters. It is wonderful, exhilarating and endearing. A discussion that is still common in the writing and publishing world is the difference between men and women authors and their aptitude in writing unsympathetic characters. Women are often said to write too “nicely”, resulting in books of lesser merit or critical acclaim. Rowling strikes a blow for women authors everywhere in not softening her novel just because she is known also to be a children’s author (although, as an aside, anyone who claims that the Harry Potter books are for children may want to take a second look at them).

The Casual Vacancy’s characters are unflinchingly, unapologetically, and unabashedly nasty, one after another: Samantha, a middle-aged woman who ends up snogging a fifteen-year old boy while drunk at a party; Howard, the morbidly obese town bully who touches Samantha’s ass every time he sees her, though she’s married to his son; Simon, who buys stolen goods and hits his children and his wife but still thinks he’s one hell of a swell guy; Fats, a middle-class teenager who believes that it’s more ‘real’ to sleep with a girl from the slums he doesn’t actually like, because having a tough life is cool and enviable. Listing the characters like this makes them sound almost ridiculous, but Rowling’s superiority as an author is that each character is absolutely believable and has a motive and reason for acting as he or she does. Though the reader may end up hating them, she also ends up understanding and empathizing with them.

Rowling’s powerful novel deals with big issues – from ambition, loneliness and family to race, addiction and poverty – but it doesn’t shove any moral notions down the reader’s throat and it doesn’t offer idealistic, impossible, solutions. It portrays a slice of reality between its two covers, a story worth telling and worth reading, and, yes, (for those for whom this is the main the draw) it gives the reader the bizarre pleasure of seeing the word “fuck” written many times by the same woman who invented the snitch, butterbeer, and Dobby the house-elf.



“A Wrackspurt… They’re invisible. They float in through your ears and make your brain go fuzzy…” – Luna Lovegood, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I’ve had a Wrackspurt in my head all day. I didn’t have any classes and an interview I was supposed to have about my school’s Oxford program was canceled: I had a whole free day to do lots and lots and lots of work in. Total amount of time actually working? Probably about two-and-a-half hours. That’s all. I napped for too long, I messed around on the Internet for too long, and now I’m writing in my blog instead of working on the story I need to send to my writing teacher or continuing to make some headway with the notes I’m trying to organize on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Ugh.

I hate when this happens. I begin to feel guilty about not having done enough and it takes the pleasure out of the things that I do for fun. Even when I try to tell myself that I actually do have enough time, that things are going okay and that I’m mostly on top of my work, actually, I still somehow end up feeling guilty. And then I get stuck in obsessive thoughts; for example, I woke up from my nap at 4:50PM and then lay in bed feeling back about having taken a nap until 5:20PM, wasting another half hour that way and not managing to release myself from those obsessive, judgmental thoughts.

If anybody knows of a potion to get rid of wrackspurts and unfuzz the brain, let me know. Also, any un-guilt potions would be helpful.

A Birthday Card and Love Letter

To the dear, amazing, wonderful and incredible author, world builder and inspiration, J. K. Rowling,

(And also, to the fictional character who we all wish was real, Harry James Potter,)

I want to you wish you an incredible birthday. Many months ago, in May of 2009, I wrote a short little piece about how the Harry Potter books were the first ones I read on my own. I’d like to go further now, and tell the story again, because I truly believe that without the Harry Potter books, I wouldn’t have become the reader I am today. If I wouldn’t have become the reader I am, I wouldn’t have begun to write. I wouldn’t have discovered the wonders of dozens of other authors, their worlds, their views and their legacies.

But it all started with the eleven-year old wizard, forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs, that was invented by you, Miss Rowling. And I’d like to share the story of how these books changed my life, and why I’m so grateful to you.

When I was eight years old, my chief activities were playing with my friends and watching television. I was a TV kid. When I was even younger and my mother taught me how to read in English, I fought tooth and nail against it. Remember, I’d learned Hebrew at school with everyone else, but my mother wanted me to be as fluent in English as I was becoming in Hebrew. I was already bilingual, but she knew that if I didn’t learn to read and write in English as a child, I’d probably lose a lot of the benefits of being so.

By the time I was eight I knew how to read in both languages, but I didn’t like to. I liked being read to – I loved stories, it’s true. It was also the age where my friends and I spent our time inventing stories and plays and games. Stories were a big part of my life, but words on pages weren’t.

Shortly after my ninth birthday, my brother turned thirteen. For his Bar Mitzva, a great-aunt of ours gifted him with the first three Harry Potter books, the third of which had only just come out, all in hardcover. I remember I thought to myself that the books sounded dumb when someone explained to me what they were about. My nine year old mind wasn’t excited, for some reason, by the prospect of a wizard boy.

My brother read the books on his own, of course. I remember distinctly, however, the first evening my mother started reading the first book to me. I was in my bed, the same one I still sleep in now, and she read the first line, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I remember cutting in then and saying something along the lines of “But the book’s called Harry Potter! Who are these people?” and my mother smiled and told me to wait patiently and we’d see together.

A couple weeks later, when we reached the chapter titled “Halloween,” while my parents were having their Friday afternoon nap, I read the whole chapter alone without telling anyone. When my mother started reading it to me that night I felt so guilty that I confessed that I’d read it alone. I thought it would hurt her feelings. She was, of course, ecstatic, and gave me her blessing to continue reading the book, and the next and the next, on my own.

So Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (I had the American version) was the first book in English that didn’t have pictures in it (except for those small ones above the chapter titles) that I read most of alone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the first book of this sort that I read completely alone, from start to finish.

It changed my life. I just kept on reading. I discovered a love for fantasy, that led me to dozens of amazing books, and later branched out to every type of book imaginable. If I’d never reached that point where I wanted so badly to know what was about to happen that I picked up the book and read the next chapter alone, then I’d never have become such an avid reader. And being a reader… means the world to me.  I can’t imagine ever living without books. I can’t imagine never reading.

Harry Potter remained with me for years, and he’s still with me. I grew up with him. When he turned seventeen when the seventh and final book came out, I turned seventeen. The books saw me through the beginning, middle and end of puberty, they saw my first kisses and first periods, my first relationship and first breakup. They saw me through my father’s death. I can’t count the times I’ve read them. I know that they’re going to remain with me for my entire life.

Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for creating a world, characters and plot so amazing that you convinced a nine-year old who watched as many hours of TV a day as she could to find the wonder and beauty of words. Thank you, Harry Potter, fictional as you are, for being the star of this author’s books, for being courageous but normal, for being talented but average, for making me feel kinship with you. Thank you, Hermione Granger, the Weasleys, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks, Serius Black, Fleur Delacour, Luna Lovegood, Dean Thomas,Seamus Finnegan, Neville Longbottom, Lee Jordan, Oliver Wood, Angelina Johnson, Alicia Spinnet, Katie Bell, Parvati Patil, Lavender Brown, Professors of Hogwarts, Rubeus Hagrid, the Malfoys, Dobby and Winky, Messrs. Crouch and Bagman, Tom Marvolo Riddle who grew into Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and, last but definitely not least (and I’m probably forgetting so many other good characters here), Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore- thank you for filling eleven (so far) years of my life with your magic.

Ten Things

1. I’m still alive.

2. I’ve been horribly neglectful.

3. The reason for the above is that I’ve been either writing furiously and feverishly on one of my two projects (yes, there are two now, but one needs a composer… Does anyone know a composer?) or tearing my hair out, quite literally, with frustration at not managing to write.

4. After years of reluctance, I’ve finally started watching the Harry Potter films. I’m a huge fan of the books – they changed my life. I might not have become such a reader if not for them. But now, after so long of refusing to watch the films, I’ve agreed to. The first part of the seventh film is coming out in September, I believe, and damn if I don’t want to have something Harry Potter-ish to look forward to. I’ve just finished watching the third film, and I must say that more than anything else, I’m finding great hilarity in them.

5. I do hope that starting today I’ll stop being quite so neglectful.

6. I went to a perfectly marvelous cabaret on Saturday. It was perfectly marvelous. You see, we do have some creative people in Israel!

7. I’m currently reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

8. And Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

9. I’m hoping to start taking voice lessons. Hopefully this will lead me back to guitar as well, and eventually to drama too. I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help it – I feel the need to try and be creative in every way possible. I want to take drawing lessons, too. *sigh*

10. It’s 1:27 AM in Israel, I’m tired, and I’m going to bed. Goodnight, lovelies.

A Passion For Fantasy

The first fantasy novel I read was the first of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was young enough then that my mother was reading it to me, at my request – the book seemed long and daunting to the nine year-old girl that I was. About twelve chapters in, though, I started cheating- I would keep reading after my mom would put the book down and say good night. A few chapters later, I felt guilty and confessed to my mother what I had been doing. She laughed and let me read it on my own from then on. That was the first average length book that I read on my own.
Today, it seems so funny to me, having read series upon series comprising eight-hundred page books. Fantasy novels tend to be long, full of twisting, complicated plots and myriad characters. One of my series even has a section listing the “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of it, lest the readers should forget who’s who.
Too many people criticize fantasy novels for their themes: idealized past, patriarchal societies, a suspicious appreciation of monarchic or socialist systems of government. The ironic and critical presentation of such systems which is apparent in so many of the books is usually overlooked entirely.
Moreover, there is so little appreciation for the massive amounts of research and imagination that goes into the writers’ work. Fantasy writers create whole worlds from scratch, from political entanglements to the irrigation systems, from magic spells to religions, from the layout of the land to the very flora that grows in it. When they’re not building their worlds, they’re researching ancient warfare, the hundreds of different deities that exist in current and ancient religions, the way actual monarchies functioned once upon a time and much more. And this is just for writers of this type of fantasy – there are so many different types and sub-genres that they’re hard to keep straight, and critics often don’t bother to distinguish them whatsoever.
I’ve held these opinions close to my heart for as long as I’ve been reading fantasy, and I have never had the opportunity to research these phenomena. Why is fantasy so disdained? Why isn’t it appreciated, but rather looked upon as a genre only for children and teenagers and unsophisticated readers? Why are the writers of fantasy not praised for their incredible writing style at least? Why do fantasy novels reach the best-seller lists, but then get beaten down and criticized?

I wish it weren’t the case, that so much of the fantasy genre be treated as sub-par by so many – especially when books that are fun reads but by no means well-written become best-sellers overnight.

Movies of Books

For most of my life I’ve been vehemently against the adaptation of novels to the big screen. I’ve always felt that it ruins the book – so many parts are skipped, or changed, or made to fit the Hollywood world rather than fit the style of the novel. However, over the years, I’ve seen quite a few movies that were made by adapting a novel into a screenplay, and I’ve had varying degrees of satisfaction from them.

There are the classic ones, the ones that I actually, and shamefully, didn’t know were based on novels until quite a while after seeing the movie: A Clockwork Orange and 2001 Space Odyssey are two of those. They’re both incredible and incredibly weird.

Then there are the ones like Bridget Jones which are so true to the feel of the novel that they’re actually worth seeing. Another like this is Atonement, the novel of which I read right after seeing the film. It’s an amazingly moving and wonderful film and almost 100% true to the novel – what’s definitely true to the novel is the atmosphere in it.

Then there are the fantasy books that are exasperatingly and constantly being made into films. One such is The Golden Compus which I will NEVER see because Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are way too good to ruin with a flashy film. Another example are the Harry Potter films. I saw the first movie and was so sick to my stomach by how the novel was butchered that I haven’t ever seen any of the sequels and I never will. But then, there’s Twilight, and that I’m going to see right now, tonight. But mostly because I don’t actually appreciate the book all that much – not enough to respectfully pass on what’s supposed to be an entertaining feature for anyway.

What do you guys think of books being made into movies?