What We’re Actually Reading: Summer 2016 Roundup

It’s five of our blog readers’ favorite vaguely-regular feature about the sad books I read when I’m not reading shitty books for this blog! Take a drink every time I describe a character as “broken”. Anyway, before you read the first item in this post: spoilers.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

What’s It About?

I don’t need to explain this, right?

What’s It Like?

Most of the reviews I’m seeing either go with a hard critical “it reads like fanficiton” or with an extra generous “you really should see the play to do it justice”. The first one feels harsh, but is definitely closer to what Cursed Child turned out to be. Even if the stage is really where this comes to life, that doesn’t forgive the lifeless, plodding, weirdly expository dialogue – because no one ever says, “Yeah, but you really need to see the play, otherwise there’s no point reading Shakespeare or Wilde.”

I’ve sat with it for a little bit, and I hate to say, for me, it’s the forgettable, unnecessary rehash I was worried this was going to be. I don’t feel like I learned anything about the people that Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and Draco grew up to be. Harry’s personal struggles and strained relationship with his son remain perplexingly murky throughout the story. Hermione and Ron are just kind of there, with little or nothing to do or growth to experience. Draco benefits the most from revisiting the character as an adult, and while it’s lovely to see him finally turn a new leaf, it’s painfully predictable. It’s too little in a story that never offers a reason why we needed to see these people again and who they are now, because they haven’t changed much, and are given no reason to change further in this story.

On top of that, Harry and Draco’s sons, Albus and Scorpius, fail to make any kind of impression as the new main characters. I really don’t get what they were trying to do throughout this play, and while you could excuse that because they’re teenagers, do consider how memorable the teenagers were in the stories that came before this one. We’re told that they’re social outcast losers, but we get this more so because they complain about it all the time than because we ever see how society treats them. It’s kind of charming in a karmic way that Scorpius is more like Hermione than he is Draco, but the writing lacks any kind of measured subtlety to really make this shine.

As for the plot itself, for a story about the dangers of living in the past, it’s kind of ironic to use time travel as the focal point of the narrative, isn’t it? Instead of moving forward (which you’d think would be the point of seeing Harry and co as adults, and focusing the story on the next generation), it’s obsessed with revisiting old scenes and twisting them around to the point where it’s more gratuitous and hokey than revelatory. Adult Harry is forced to witness his parents’ murder firsthand, but it doesn’t feel like an experience that actually affects him as a person as it does like an obligatory full circle moment, which is kind of a huge problem. And once the alternative timelines get introduced in the first place – rewriting histories with different combinations of characters who died or lived each time – it’s hard to feel as though they have real consequences, since they just go away forever in a few scenes. For a series that infamously never pulled punches, the stakes in Cursed Child never feel very high.

Contrary to my opinions here, a very good read over at Birth.Movies.Death argues instead that the time travel works as a perfect metaphor “for the way our histories haunt us, and they way they can even haunt our children and loved ones. But at the same time those pasts, and the pain that lives forever in them, make us who we are. To take them away, to smooth those edges, would render us unrecognizable”. I can totally see this, and really wish that the plot had struck me the same way. I hope it does and that I find the story grows on me over time. There’s a lot to love in here – the Malfoys are the emotional stars of the show for once, Harry remains humblingly human – but none of it feels essential. Even if it’s an effective metaphor for how the past shapes who we are, I don’t think we needed more Harry Potter that remained so stuck in it.

One more “this was never going to please everyone” complaint that needs to be said anyway: it’s the most Neville Longbottom thing possible that Neville Longbottom doesn’t appear in this.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s not a book we read for the blog (or a book), but it’s basically Harry Potter and the Reminder That I Didn’t Like Back To The Future Part 2 That Much. Staying on theme, though, I guess it’s unfortunately a lot like a Maddox brother novel: the same characters you loved in the previous books show up but it doesn’t do anything new or interesting with them.

harry potter cursed child

A Little Life

What’s It About?

The life of Jude, a deeply broken man with a childhood of horrifying abuse. It follows him and his friends from their college years/early adulthood – where he neither got nor accepted the help he needed – through middle-age – where the toll on his mental health has been taken.

What’s It Like?

Oof. This is a rough one. It’s a stunning, beautiful story, but it is remarkably painful and heartrending. There’s probably nothing meaningful I can say about it without getting frank about mental health. I was honestly a little terrified how much of Jude’s psyche clicked with me. Not that our lives are remotely similar, but Jude’s depression resonated. I even had trouble writing the summary in the paragraph above this one, because there’s so much tension around how Jude just does not get help, but there’s no blame to place anywhere. He has a therapist in his youth he can only partially open up to (and she dies) and his loved ones are constantly encouraging him to talk to someone, but it’s not like his refusal to do so is on him, because that’s all part of it. It’s a heartbreaking look at a life surrounded by people who love him so much, but at how isolated things seem on the inside.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

Kind of like how Fifty Shades of Grey is basically about a broken man who constantly refused to get help, except if it didn’t portray mental illness as “and that’s how I got into BDSM” or the solutions as “and then someone fucked enough love into me that I’m good now!” Remember how that’s actually what Fifty Shades of Grey was about? Haha. Fuck.

a little life yanagihara

Failed States

What’s It About?

Noam Chomsky’s blistering 2007 analysis of the United States, its destabilyzing impact around the world, and the failures of its electoral system to meaningfully represent the interests of its people. The last part reads very horrifyingly now in 2016.

What’s It Like?

Look, I’m not going to have anything smart to say about Noam Chomsky that hasn’t been said already. But this was a really insightful reminder of just how bad the George W Bush years fucked everything up.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s like how Divergent was all about the actions of a batshit insane government, except it’s nonfiction and it’s more batshit insane somehow.

failed-states-noam-chomsky

Jam

What’s It About?

The apocalypse happens, except it’s a layer of organic matter-eating jam that suddenly appeared overnight.

What’s It Like?

I was hoping for a silly, absurd take on the apocalypse, but Jam tries to go deep into human nature, which is sadly (obvious joke incoming) too thinly spread. I recalled enjoying Yahtzee Croshaw’s short story in Machine of Death, so it’s not like he can’t pull off dark comedy, but his satirical targets here are too cliche and one-note, and his main characters are too misanthropic and devoid of understandable motivation to really make any criticism of office culture or hipster culture land with any sort of perspective. If you played a drinking game with this book for every time the word “ironic” was part of a punchline, you’d be as dead as the people that got devoured by its apocalyptic jam.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s like Armada, in that the main character’s motivation is basically just “oh, I just do not know what I want to do with my life!”, and then the book similarly never figures out how to make us care about that.

jam yahtzee croshaw

See Now Then

What’s It About?

…honestly I’m not sure. I’ve wanted to check out Jamaica Kincaid for a while now and apparently chose the bad book to start with. I think it’s about a loveless marriage?

What’s It Like?

I really wanted to like it, because it’s written in this great stylistically repetitive, naval-gazing style that makes the story more so about what’s going on in its characters’ heads than what’s going on outside of them. It reminded me of Gertrude Stein, although it was so fucking confusing that it also reminded me that I was the only person in my college modernism class who liked Gertrude Stein.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

Like if Allegiant and the last chapter of One With You had an even more confusing baby.

see now then

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck

What’s It About?

Pretty much what it says in the title.

What’s It Like?

I did rather like it, and it’s a quick little read. It’s always useful to have a reminder that you can’t control if other people like you or not, and should only spend so much energy worrying about that. This reminder comes with jokes!

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

Basically the opposite of how any character in Crossfire lives their life.

life changing magic of not giving a fck

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (season one)

What’s It About?

A musical dark comedy about a woman struggling to… you know what? The theme song’s got you covered.

What’s It Like?

Straight up the best tv I’ve seen all year. It’s smart, witty, hilarious, but also gets really fuckin’ real. This show does a spectacular job of creating broken people living through real pain, but letting those shortcomings be actual flaws, but still make them people we want to root for. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is totally unafraid to let its characters be genuinely awful, but can hold onto what’s really in their heart of hearts even when they can’t. Even the slight Team Josh/Team Greg dynamic isn’t really about a love triangle: both of them kind of suck. But like everyone on the show, their awful habits don’t make you stop hoping they eventually pull themselves together. They just make them more understandable. NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a fantastic take on this earlier this year, also going into how Josh Chan is more fascinating as Rebecca’s fantasy – as an idea – than as an actual person, but how the show’s still sort of about how that’s… weirdly totally fine.

I can’t begin to explain how fucking hard it is to not just put all my favorite songs in this post in lieu of, you know, explaining why I love this show. But watch this and tell me you don’t want to watch this show right now.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

If Fifty ShadesCrossfire, and any given Jamie McGuire novel all realized that their characters were all totally fucking bonkers, but realized that kind of bonkers is by and large pretty normal, and wished they would just take some time to take care of themselves.

Make Happy

What’s It About?

The third comedy special by the rather notably dark comedian Bo Burnham.

What’s It Like?

…probably his best work? Honestly. I’ve been a fan of his stuff for a long time, although I always felt like he generally had a hard time maintaining brutal satire (“Oh Bo“, “High School Party“) and instead often slipped into “edgy” humor word salad (“New Math“). His previous special what. was a step toward trying to think bigger and get deeper, but with Make Happy he nailed it, exploring how something as fundamental as happiness is so fundamentally weird and hard to define. You’ll laugh deeply, but you’ll feel deeply weird about it. Which is what Bo does a great job getting you to think about this time around.

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

It’s like the bits of Crossfire or a Jamie McGuire romance where the main characters fight over what happiness is rooted in, except if it actually made any fucking sense.

Scream (season one)

What’s It About?

An attempt to do a serialized TV reboot of a beloved horror movie that managed to poke fun at the tropes and formulas behind horror movies while also being scary and engaging. The TV series manages to do… half of that…

What’s It Like?

I’m not saying it’s the worst written and worst acted tv show with the least interesting characters I’ve seen in a long time, but I probably should have given up when wry, disaffected, ironic teenager #7 said “Yay, sportsball” while looking straight into the camera.

Fun aside that maybe two people reading this will get: video game developer/feminist critic Brianna Wu took time out of her day one time to tell me on Twitter that she liked season 2, but I probably wouldn’t if I didn’t like season 1. That was nice of her!

Can You Explain It In Terms of Other Books We Read On This Blog?

If House of Night genuinely tried to be self-aware and self-mocking, but was still House of Night and the self-mocking just got really sad.

mtv scream

And Here’s What I’ve Been Listening To

You know who’s fucking awesome? Grimes is fucking awesome. Her most recent album, Art Angels, is nonstop artsy/poppy hits, and what’s fascinating is that basically all her previous albums are ambient and experimental? Pretty fun variety. Although I recommended her to my dad saying that she might remind him of a cross between Florence and the Machine and Kate Bush, and he got the ambient stuff I didn’t know existed at the time. Whoops.

I went to a Wolf Parade concert this year having no idea who Wolf Parade was, and then realized, “Oh, of course. You’re my FAVORITE BAND.”

There are a bunch of bands who have a huge discography that I only know through one song or album, and occasionally I try to really dive into that discography. This just happened when I remembered that Tegan and Sara exist. Holy shit, these two are good.

I’ve been trying to curb how much “sad” music I listen to over the course of this year, but sometimes you have to listen to Elliott Smith‘s “Somebody That I Used To Know” on repeat and hope none of your friends on Spotify are paying attention.

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about how amazing Julien Baker is on this blog yet, but she’s new and amazing, so I feel pretty ok recommending her again. I’m seeing her in concert later this month and I am SO EXCITED.

I also made an absurd, day-of decision to buy secondhand tickets for a Radiohead concert. I know if you’re reading this, you’re probably hoping for a slightly more unique music recommendation than Radiohead, but I saw the magic happen and I’m not over it yet. The new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, has some pretty lovely stuff on it…

…but the concert made me remember just how fucking beautiful “Nude” is.

And for those of you who look forward to these posts (?) for the jazz recommendations (????), I finally got around to listening to BADBADNOTGOOD, the jazz outfit that did last year’s collaboration with Ghostface Killa (???????????????????)

Fuck it. One more Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song.

What about you? Share anything you’re reading, watching, or listening to in the comments!

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4 comments

  1. Bellomy

    I flipped through “Cursed Child” and was vaguely impressed with Draco and nothing else. The series suffers the same ol’, same ol’ problem with Slytherin characters despite at least an attempt to fix it Rowling never made; the problem is that Scorpius and Albus are very, very obviously not even close to Slytherins and the other, actual Slytherins we see still suck a big one.

    Ron was horrible; nobody but Rowling seemed to master the trick of making him the relatively dumbest of the trio and still not making him dumb. “The Cursed Child”wrote him like a buffoon. Ron was a bit of a jerk and insecure but never a real idiot in the series. Here we learn that in, like, every alternate timeline he’s a pathetic loser.

    Harry witnessing his parents’ murder was done. Didn’t he already basically see it more than once in the series, a few times through dementors and once actually as Voldemort? What is the narrative in him seeing it YET AGAIN?

    The dialogue sucked. Draco was good, though.

    This was all first impressions from skimming through, but…pass.

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    • matthewjulius Post author

      Honestly, the most heartbreaking thing in Cursed Child was a joke about how Ron was drunk when he married Hermione and didn’t remember much of it, and it was like “OK. COOL. THIS IS FINE. THIS DOES NOT DEVALUE THEIR LOVE AT ALL.”

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      • Bellomy

        Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking of. Like, what the fuck? That honestly doesn’t sound like Ron at all to me.

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  2. justaddgigi

    So I’m a long time Harry Potter fan, but seriously your review of Cursed Child really doesn’t make me enthusiastic to read this play. Although, admittedly I haven’t been really happy with the books themselves since book 5.

    Honestly, I will stick to the better written fan fiction.

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