Note: If this is your first visit to my blog: welcome! Before you continue, there are a few things you should know: a) I’m not just a blogger; I’m also a pooka. Take a minute to digest that. I know it can come as a shock. And b) This is the second in a series of posts which detail my reluctant conversion to “Harry Potter” fandom. To begin the journey along with me instead of starting en media res, please visit the first post in the series, entitled “This Is My Confession.” If you’d rather read about something other than “Harry Potter,” feel free to visit the “Archives” located to the far right, and click on any month for a sampling of my reviews.
If you’ve been with me all along, I’d like to say “Thank you!” And, “Read on, my loyal readers!”
I’ve done it again. I’ve been reading and not reviewing. This time, however, I’m not going to say I’ve been bad. I’m not going to offer any heartfelt apologies because I feel no remorse. I don’t think I’ve been bad; I think I’ve been good! I think it’s what you’re supposed to do with “Harry Potter” if you’re lucky enough to have the luxury: just take ’em all in with one big gulp. Think of the poor children who read them as they were being published! The normal waiting period between books was a full year, which must have been tortuous enough, but in one case (between the third and fourth books) readers had to wait an absurd three years!
I read gluttonously on their behalf. For the children.
Taking it slowly would be like not finishing my dinner when there are people starving. Even as I write this review, some mom somewhere should be popping out of the woodwork, telling me to finish my peas (metaphorically speaking… and it’s important to note that I’ve always liked peas). I should be (and am) thankful for the bounty before me. The fifth book awaits! For that’s the book I’m on now – the fifth. For you though, readers, and for my memory (which is half of the reason that I write this blog – so I can keep track of & remember what I’ve read, since I can’t be trusted to do so on my own), I will backtrack a bit to review the second book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” before I explode. It’ll be like unbuttoning my Pooka pants and taking a breather. After this, I’ll be better prepared to finish the rest of the Potter on my plate.
Title: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Author: J.K. Rowling
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction (Ages 9-12)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic
Publication Date: July 01, 1999
Hardcover: 341 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No. The monster is not a pooka.
As “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” begins, Harry’s about to start his second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He’s still living with the Dursleys when he’s not at school (regrettably), and they’re still mistreating him. The only thing that’s gotten him through the summer holiday is thinking that he finally has friends waiting for him and a place where he belongs. These warm feelings are tinged with doubt, however, since he’s not received a single letter from Ron or Hermoine for the duration of the break.
His doubts are soon quelled when Dobby, a pitiful, awestruck house elf shows up and reveals that he’s been hoarding the letters to make Harry feel unwanted. He tells Harry that he’s done it for his own protection and that he mustn’t go back to Hogwarts this year. There’s great danger in store, he warns. Harry, predictably, does not heed Dobby’s warning.
When he returns to school (after some colorful, end-of-the-summer misadventures), events prove that Dobby wasn’t kidding around. The Chamber of Secrets has been opened and a monster has been loosed upon the students. All that’s known about the perp is a title – “the Heir of Slytherin” – and what he’s after: the death of all mudbloods.
“Mudblood” is a nasty word for a witch or wizard with non-magical parents. In his day, Voldemort preached the importance of a “pure” family line. He and his followers murdered anyone who dared to have “muggle” parentage. In their opinion, the very existence of Mudbloods tainted the pool. Only those whose parents and whose parents’ parents had been wizards deserved to live. Anything else was “dirty” and “shameful” – anyone else was worse than a second-class citizen – they were an abomination. Extermination was the only solution.
After Voldemort disappeared, the killings stopped. Now, at Hogwarts, it looks as if they’re about to begin again. A number of Mudblood students have been attacked and as clues pile up as to who the Heir might be, they all seem to point to Harry. What’s worse is that he’s begun to hear sinister voices that no one else can hear.
Is Harry going crazy? Is he being possessed? Is it possible that he’s not who he seems to be? Are his fellow students right to turn on him? If he’s not the Heir, then who is? And most importantly, can the Heir – Harry or not – be stopped?
What Made the Story Totally Worth Eating:
1. It provided the kindling for my passionate love affair with Arthur Weasley.
When it comes to Potter-inspired crushes, I know Mr. Weasley’s not the obvious choice. Harry, sure. Fred & George? Okay. Even Ron’s acceptable. But Mr. Weasley??? It may be unheard of. First of all, he’s old. He’s a parent, for Merlin’s sake! But lest you forget: I’m made of ancient magic. It’s natural that I might go for an older man. You may object to his appearance. Tall, dark, and handsome, he is not. He’s more like tall, lanky, Gingered, and balding. But that’s part of his charm. I’m ever-swayed by those of the gangly, adorable persuasion. But what I really love about him is that he’s a geek — in a good way. I recently read a quote by Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”) that perfectly encapsulates what I mean. He said,
“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”
What Arthur enjoys most is learning about Muggle (non-magical human) society. He works for the Ministry of Magic in the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts division, from which he’s procured a flying car. When Fred & George steal the car to break Harry free of the Dursley’s “care,” he completely forgets to reprimand them in his excitement over asking about how the car performed. When Mrs. Weasley reprimands him for his lack of parental discipline, he can only force himself to mutter “That– that was very wrong, boys — very wrong indeed…” (39). He’s forever eagerly asking about Muggle technology, and forever getting the names of things not-quite-right. For instance, when he hears that Harry’s taken the Underground, he jumps to ask, “Really? Were there escapators?” (i.e. escalators) (47). Oh, my geeky, geeky darling.
You know what’s almost as good as being a geek? Loving a geek. Fortunately, I’m good on two counts. Imagine Mrs. Weasley, swooning over that handsome buffoon, Gilderoy Lockhart, when she’s got such a stud right under her nose.
Speaking of Lockhart…
2. Lockhart is as side-splittingly irritating as The Dursleys.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: J.K. Rowling is a genius when it comes to writing small-time villains. Calling him a “villain” might be a tad unfair but Lockhart certainly never helps matters. As the newly-appointed Dark Arts professor (and the author of about a million “autobiographical” memoirs), he’s forever getting in the way with his giant ego and tiny brain. And he lacks moral fiber the way Cheez-Doodles lack regular fiber. A steady diet of either would have the same effect; you’d be sick. Every time he flashes that cheesy grin, I’m impressed by Harry’s self-control. While Pookas are notoriously mischievous creatures, we’re rarely violent. That being said, if I were Harry, I’m quite sure I’d have knocked Lockhart’s perfect teeth out.
3. The gang must choose which subjects they’ll study next year.
Remember earlier when I said that I don’t just love a geek but that I am one? I wasn’t simply referring to the way I “proudly emote” about books. I also possess a profound love of school. Only a geek would get excited about choosing classes. While Harry, Ron & Hermoine debated which classes to enroll in, I imagined which I’d go for. Would I take Divination & learn to foretell the future? I can’t imagine taking it seriously, but learning the art of reading tea leaves sounds fun and I’ve always been fascinated by chiromancy (palmistry). Maybe it’s because I don’t really have palms as a rabbit… we’re always fascinated by that which we lack. What about Care of Magical Creatures? Probably not, as “magical creatures” are my peers and I’m just not that social or compassionate. Arithmancy? That’d be a resounding “no”, since it involves numbers (which are my kryptonite). What other disciplines exist? Is there a book I can read just about that? ‘Cause I’d be totally into it.
4. It serves as a primer for some really heavy topics (like class wars and genocide).
While reading “The Chamber of Secrets,” my most preeminent thought was, “I wonder if kids, when they finally learn about World War II, recognize the similarities between Hitler & Voldemort.” Kids read “Harry Potter” at such an early age now – beginning at age 6 is pretty much the norm – that it’s entirely safe to say that they’ve been taken aback by Lord Voldemort’s evil far before they ever hear tell of Hitler’s. When they are eventually sitting in that History class and the topic comes up, is it more accessible because they’ve encountered such a villain before? Does the fact that they’ve been so prepared make it less or more impactful?
5. It parodies “the dangers of reading.”
Due to its “occult” nature, “Harry Potter” is one of the most banned books of all-time (along with “Mein Kampf,” which actually makes this kind-of an unintentionally perfect transition). I think J.K. Rowling must have known how ridiculous that is when she wrote the following paragraph:
“Harry and Ron looked under the sink where Myrtle was pointing. A small, thin book lay there. It had a shabby black cover and was as wet as everything else in the bathroom. Harry stepped forward to pick it up, but Ron suddenly flung out an arm to hold him back.
‘What?’ said Harry.
‘Are you crazy?’ said Ron. ‘It could be dangerous.’
‘Dangerous?’ said Harry, laughing. ‘Come off it, how could it be dangerous?’
‘You’d be surprised,’ said Ron, who was looking apprehensively at the book. ‘Some of the books the Ministry’s confiscated — Dad’s told me — there was one that burned your eyes out. And everyone who read Sonnets of a Sorcerer spoke in limericks for the rest of their lives. And some old witch in Bath had a book that you could never stop reading! You just had to wander around with your nose in it, trying to do everything one-handed. And–‘
‘All right, I’ve got the point,’ said Harry.
The little book lay on the floor, nondescript and soggy.
‘Well, we won’t find out unless we look at it,’ he said, and he ducked around Ron and picked it up off the floor” (231).
Although it’s ridiculous, there’s some truth to what Ron says. Books can be dangerous because ideas are dangerous. That’s no reason to burn them or not to read them, but it’s important to recognize. Rowling manages to hold both truths to the light at once, which is admirable. She seems to know the most important thing: that everything’s silly and everything’s serious. The truth is in the tension.
5. It provides valuable life advice.
Despite my earlier criticism of Mrs. Weasley, I actually think she’s a wonderful, kind, and wise character. And indeed, perhaps the best lesson of the book comes from her: “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain!” (239).
What I Spit Back Out:
1. There’s a continued lack of lyricism.
My qualms with the book are nothing new. Like “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, “The Chamber of Secrets” was a great, fast-paced, imaginative, engaging read, but the language left something to be desired. My boss – the great & powerful Master’s Degree’d Children’s Librarian (do I sound bitter? the school-lover just wants more school!) – says that this is a good thing. She says that if the language had been more beautiful, and poetic, and stylized, that Rowling would have lost half of her audience. Part of the mass appeal is that the story’s plainly-written. She’s probably – sadly – right. And I think it’s great that “Harry Potter” was so popular and that it (like “Twilight”) inspired a whole new generation of readers! But, there are also some readers who keenly felt the lack. Perhaps it would have been less popular if it had been prettier – but it also would have been better. I wonder, is J.K. Rowling capable of pretty prose?
Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” books, has admitted, “I think I’m good at storytelling and not necessarily writing it in a beautiful way.” Granted, she also said, “I hope I’m getting better. Hopefully practice makes perfect,” which was an empty hope. “Breaking Dawn,” the last book in the “Twilight” series, was jaw-droppingly awful – the worst of the lot, for sure. But her fruitless optimism doesn’t make her admission any less honest. Does Meyer’s assessment of herself also hold true for Rowling?
Rowling’s world-building skills make me think that the plainness of her words may have been a conscious choice. Forks is nowhere near as well-developed as Hogwarts. But I just can’t be sure. I’m anxious to read “A Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s recently-published adult novel, to see if she’s taken the same, popular road, or if she’s used a new world and a new genre as an opportunity to do things differently. I definitely plan to read on!
And that, my friends, concludes my review.
Time to eat my peas!
Pooka Rating: 4 out of 5 Nibbles.