Category: Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling: By the Book


The author of Harry Potter and, now, “The Casual Vacancy,” says her favorite literary character is Jo March: “It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo.

What’s the best book you read this summer?

I loved “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller.

What was the last truly great book you read?

“Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I lived in it the way that you do with truly great books; putting it down with glazed eyes and feeling disconcerted to find yourself in the 21st century. I met the author at a reception in the American Embassy in London last year, and I was so excited that I was bobbing up and down on the spot like a 5-year-old.

Any literary genre you simply can’t be bothered with?

“Can’t be bothered with” isn’t a phrase I’d use, because my reading tastes are pretty catholic. I don’t read “chick lit,” fantasy or science fiction but I’ll give any book a chance if it’s lying there and I’ve got half an hour to kill. With all of their benefits, and there are many, one of the things I regret about e-books is that they have taken away the necessity of trawling foreign bookshops or the shelves of holiday houses to find something to read. I’ve come across gems and stinkers that way, and both can be fun.

On the subject of literary genres, I’ve always felt that my response to poetry is inadequate. I’d love to be the kind of person that drifts off into the garden with a slim volume of Elizabethan verse or a sheaf of haikus, but my passion is story. Every now and then I read a poem that does touch something in me, but I never turn to poetry for solace or pleasure in the way that I throw myself into prose.

What was the last book that made you cry?

The honest answer is “The Casual Vacancy.” I bawled while writing the ending, while rereading it and when editing it.

The last book that made you laugh?

“The Diaries of Auberon Waugh.” It’s in my bathroom, and it’s always good for a giggle.

The last book that made you furious?

As Margaret Thatcher might say, I don’t wish to give it the oxygen of publicity.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?

The president’s already read “Team of Rivals,” and I can’t think of anything better for him. I’d give our prime minister “Justice,” by Michael Sandel.

What were your favorite books as a child?

“The Little White Horse,” by Elizabeth Goudge; “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott; “Manxmouse,” by Paul Gallico; everything by Noel Streatfeild; everything by E. Nesbit; “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell (indeed, anything with a horse in it).

Did you have a favorite character or hero as a child? Do you have a literary hero as an adult?

My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.

What’s the best book your mother ever gave or read to you?

She gave me virtually all the books mentioned above. My most vivid memory of being read to is my father reading “The Wind in the Willows” when I was around 4 and suffering from the measles. In fact, that’s all I remember about having the measles: Ratty, Mole and Badger.

What books have your own children introduced you to recently? Or you to them?

My son introduced me to Cressida Cowell’s dragon books, which are so good and funny. My younger daughter is pony mad, so we’re halfway through a box set by Pippa Funnell. I recently started pressing Kurt Vonnegut Jr. on my elder daughter, who is a scientist.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

I took this question so seriously I lost hours to it. I went through all of my favorite writers, discarding them for various reasons: P. G. Wodehouse, for instance, was so shy that it might be a very awkward meeting. Judging by his letters, his main interests were Pekingese dogs and writing methodology. As I don’t own a Peke I’ve got a feeling we’d just discuss laptops rather than exploring the secrets of his genius.

I finally narrowed the field to two: Colette and Dickens. If Colette were prepared to talk freely, it would be the meeting of a lifetime because she led such an incredible life (her biography, “Secrets of the Flesh,” by Judith Thurman, is one of my all-time favorites). By the narrowest of margins, though, I think I’d meet Dickens. What would I want to know? Everything.

Do you remember the best fan letter you ever received? What made it special?

There have been so many extraordinary fan letters, but I’m going to have to say it was the first one I ever received, from a young girl called Francesca Gray. It meant the world to me.

So many children’s books today try to compare themselves to Harry Potter. If your new book, “The Casual Vacancy,” were to be compared to another book, author or series in your dream book review, what would it be?

“The Casual Vacancy” consciously harked back to the 19th-century traditions of Trollope, Dickens and Gaskell; an analysis of a small, literally parochial society. Any review that made reference to any of those writers would delight me.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?

My heart is divided three ways: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and “The Casual Vacancy.”

There’s a whole publishing sub-industry of books about Harry Potter. Have you read any of them, or any of the scholarly articles devoted to the books?

No, except for two pages of a book claiming to reveal the Christian subtext. It convinced me that I ought not to read any others.

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?

“The Playboy of the Western World,” the second volume of Nigel Hamilton’s biography of J.F.K. and sequel to “Reckless Youth.”

If you could bring only three books to a desert island, which would you pack?

Collected works of Shakespeare (not cheating — I’ve got a single volume of them); collected works of P. G. Wodehouse (two volumes, but I’m sure I could find one); collected works of Colette.

If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

Elizabeth Bennet, naturally.

What was the last book you just couldn’t finish?

“Armadale,” by Wilkie Collins. Having loved “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone,” I took it on tour with me to the United States in 2007 anticipating a real treat. The implausibility of the plot was so exasperating that I abandoned it mid-read, something I hardly ever do.

What do you plan to read next?

There are three books that I need to read for research sitting on my desk, but for pleasure, because I love a good whodunit and she’s a master, I’m going to read “The Vanishing Point” by Val McDermid.

It’s not easy to love the characters in “The Casual Vacancy”: They don’t wage an epic war against evil.  They don’t have warm, fuzzy names like Neville Longbottom or Albus Dumbledore.

They don’t trade Chocolate Frog Cards.

Instead of the earnest likes of Hagrid and Luna Lovegood peppering the pages of Rowling’s latest novel, we meet Terri Weedon, an impoverished heroin-addicted mother; Parminder Jawanda, a rigid doctor judgmental of her daughter’s imperfections; and Howard Mollison, a narrow-minded delicatessen owner whose behavior toward women would cause Gloria Steinhem to throw tomatoes in his direction.

There’s no one like Ginny Weasley in sight.

Which may be why New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani writes, “This novel for adults is filled with a variety of people like Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.”

It was hard for me to like these characters. Even harder to love them: More than once, I thought of putting the book down because these characters are so real, so raw, that they become dislikable and at the same time, curiously familiar.

Because they remind me of my family, my friends, my parishioners, my students — they remind me of the neighbors Jesus calls me to love.

I will say very quickly, before I go any further, that not all the people in my life are “self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks.”  In fact, very few of them are.

But they are flawed.

And sometimes, they are not easy to love.

(Neither am I, I should add.  Because I would not want you, dear reader, walking away from this article under the impression that I perceive myself as any more perfect than any of Rowling’s imperfect characters. I am not.)

But back to the neighbors.  You see, I — who teach a course at Yale on Christian Theology and the Harry Potter series — often fantasized about closing Rowling’s book because I had such a hard time loving these characters.  I was tempted to terminate our literary relationship in the way a Hogwarts first year is tempted by a pumpkin pasty on the train to Hogwarts.

I was tempted in the same way we’re all tempted to disengage from difficult people in real life.

Yet, as a priest, as a Christian, I have committed myself to loving my neighbors, even when it’s not convenient for me.  Even when I don’t really like them.  I’m supposed to love everyone, including the woman who cuts me off on the parkway because she’s texting and the guy who spits on the empty seat next to me on the bus.

Only it’s not so easy to love texting lady or the spitting guy.  And it’s even harder to love friends and family when they do something hurtful.

It’s much easier to walk away, to close the book on tough relationships.  (Indeed, in some cases, closing the book is the wise choice: In a case of  domestic violence, for instance, severing the relationship is not only healthy, but may be life-preserving.)

As a priest, loving one’s neighbor takes on an even more nuanced dimension: Priests are called to hear peoples’ stories, all of their stories, even the ones about frailties and faults that they’re afraid to utter elsewhere.  We hear their sins and their doubts, and while we have the great privilege of witnessing their greatest acts of compassion, we also see their most hardened, bitter, seemingly unlovable parts.

We priests, we Christians, are called to love all of this.

I kept hoping — though I knew Rowling was not that kind of writer — that the pages of this book would offer some kind of easy answer to the challenge of neighbor love.

But they don’t.

No one in “The Casual Vacancy” loves their neighbors with grace and none but the deceased character Barry Fairbrother — who is almost God-like in the way his physical absence is constantly present — seems capable of loving his neighbors well at all.

As a priest, I naturally wondered if Rowling would turn to the Church’s teachings to explain what love of neighbor was really all about in this town where “a communal life … seemed to revolve around the church” (300).

She doesn’t do that either.

If the Church is supposed to be offering answers to these characters, it has curiously little to say from Rowling’s purview.  While she acknowledges the church as the center of town, the out-of-touch vicar seems to be the only unnamed member of the community and Rowling portrays his homilies as sterile, impersonal.

Without ruining the ending, Rowling does offer some kind of guidance.  As one character sits in a pew near the book’s conclusion, she finds herself under a statue of the church’s namesake, St. Michael, the archangel who slew a dragon and defeated Satan in the Book of Revelation. St. Michael is charged with rescuing humans from the devil, with protecting God’s people, with judging souls.  This character — one of the many imperfect, hard-to-love characters — thinks to herself, “It would have been a relief if St. Michael had stepped down and enacted judgment on them all, decreeing how much fault was hers … for the broken lives, for the mess” (499).

But St. Michael does not come down.  No judgment is cast in this world.  And perhaps that’s where hope for how to love difficult neighbors lies, in the tomorrows characters are given to do better, to try again.

It’s not an easy hope.  It’s not a magical one.  But it’s a real one.

And it’s one we Christians might be able to adopt as well, if only we’re willing to keep turning pages in our relationships, to keep the book open and read further.

J. K. Rowling’s new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, has been described by the press as a novel about class and poverty, one drawing inspiration from Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot and which some sayis “doomed to be known as Mugglemarch.”

Billed as “a big novel about a small town,” The Casual Vacancy takes up issues of addiction, sexual assault, incest, racism, and self-harm, in addition to engaging more broadly with issues of class and poverty.

“But,” wrote Theo Tait for The Guardian, “these sections of the book are a little too laborious and programmatic to be truly harrowing: like a detective series dutifully dealing with “social issues”, it seems to come at the underclass story via what we already know from journalism, or from social workers, rather than inhabiting it from the inside.”

The Casual Vacancy is certainly a novel that deals with classism, with petty citizens who disapprove of the town’s Sikh doctor showing up to the funeral in a sari, and tries to hold a mirror up to  the ugliness that lies just beneath the veneer of middle-class sensibility. But to be a novel about poverty, it isn’t nuanced enough.

Social commentary in The Casual Vacancy often leaves you with the same feeling as its sex scenes. It’s as if Rowling sat down and thought to herself, “Right. This is a book for adults, so every five or ten pages I should drop in a mention of condoms, sex, or vaginas to make sure everyone’s got it.” In some places, it works; in most, it seems artificial.

Here’s the basic geography of The Casual Vacancy: it’s primarily set in Pagford, a sleepy and relatively prosperous West Country town. Pagford is close to Yarvil, a larger and seedier almost-city. In between the two is Fields, a neighborhood made up of cheap metal council houses encroaching on the boundaries (and the tax dollars) of Pagford. Most Pagford residents want the neighborhood to be reassigned to Yarvil to keep Fields kids out of their schools and safeguard the town’s middle class sensibility; a few others are dedicated to keeping Fields assigned to Pagford to make sure its addiction clinic stays open that that its residents have some form of support.

In the novel, Rowling writes that “nearly two-thirds of Fields dwellers lived entirely off the state; and that a sizeable proportion passed through the doors of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.” Horrified that the children of single mothers and junkies will be allowed “to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yarvil accents,” the anti-Fields contingent of the Parish Council seize the opportunity provided by the death of pro-Fields councilor Barry Fairbrother. his spot with someone who’d help them shift the boundary line.

When it comes to issues of class, the novel reads more as an exploration of petty infighting and social dynamics in a solidly middle-class parish than as an investigation of poverty in modern England. Though the question of what will become of Fields drives most of the plot, readers are left unmoved thanks to underdeveloped characters.

The Weedons are the only family from the Fields to get their own story line; the rest of the estate’s inhabitants are painted with broad and relatively vague strokes.

Rather than giving us, say, a handful of characters from Pagford and a handful from Fields, Rowling uses Krystal Weedon and her family as the stand-in for an entire population with vastly different lived experiences with poverty and discrimination. Krystal seems to be intended to symbolize all of the trauma to be to found in Fields, as well as all of what’s good about it. And in doing so, she comes off as reductive and archetypal. It’s a disservice to the complex social issues she’s meant to represent, not to mention her own story line.

Rowling had extensive personal experience with the British welfare system in a previous life, and her commitment to analyzing the social dynamics in this small, closed-off town reads are genuine. But since most of the novels’ characters are Pagford residents, not Fields-dwellers, that’s the perspective from which we see this world: Fields becomes the prism through which various characters grow or reveal their inner ugliness, not a living community.

The Casual Vacancy reads better as a novel about attitudes towards poverty, welfare, and addiction than it does about the lived experience of these things – but, perhaps, that’s what it was trying to do all along.

Those who, like me, literally grew up with Harry Potter will find a lot of love here, but they’d be advised to go in with two warnings. One: the world of Pagford is a lot like Privet Drive, without the promise of warmth, magic, and broomsticks to escape on, and two: though The Casual Vacancy may introduce millions of readers worldwide to some of the issues related to modern British poverty (and at some points it seems like one of Rowling’s motivations is to use her stature, and the knowledge that most people would buy her book no matter what, as an opportunity to educate the public), it shouldn’t be mistaken for a complex or complete analysis of poverty and class.

Perhaps, in the same way that Harry Potter was a compelling advertisement for reading for pleasure for millions of people, The Casual Vacancy will serve as an introduction: to Alan Bennett, to Irvine Welsh, and to the scores of other British writers engaging with class in a more thorough and complicated way.

Pauline Holdsworth is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter at @holdswo.

Thu Oct 11, 2012 12:34pm EDT

Oct 11 (Reuters) - J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, "The
Casual Vacancy," held on to the top spot of Publishers Weekly's
bestseller list for the second consecutive week on Thursday. 
    The list is compiled using data from independent and chain
bookstores, book wholesalers and independent distributors
    Hardcover Fiction                     Last Week
    1. "The Casual Vacancy" by
J. K. Rowling (Little, Brown, $35.00)         1
    2. "Mad River" by John Sandford
(Putnam, $27.95)                              -
    3. "Winter of the World" by Ken            
Follett (Dutton, $36.00)                  2
    4. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn           
(Crown, $25.00)                         3
    5. "The Time Keeper" by Mitch Albom       
(Hyperion, $24.99)                      4
    6. "A Wanted Man" by Lee Child            
(Delacorte, $28.00)                           5
    7. "Live by Night" by     Dennis Lehane
(William Morrow, $27.99)                      -
    8. "Dark Storm" by Christine Feehan
(Berkley, $26.95)                             -
    9. "Phantom" by Jo Nesbø (Knopf, $25.95)  -
    10. "Low Pressure" by Sandra Brown          
(Grand Central, $26.99)                       6
    Hardcover Nonfiction
    1. "Killing Kennedy" by Bill O'Reilly
(Henry Holt, $28.00)                          -
    2. "No Easy Day" by Mark Owen             
(Dutton, $26.95)                              1
    3. "Total Recall" by Arnold
Schwarzenegger (Dutton, $26.95)               -
    4. "America Again" by Stephen Colbert
(Grand Central, $28.99)                       -
    5. "God Loves You" by David Jeremiah
(FaithWords, $23.99)                          -
    6. "The America's Test Kitchen Quick 
Family Cookbook" by America's Test 
Kitchen eds. (America's Test Kitchen, $34.95) -
    7. "I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak" by   
Joel Osteen (FaithWords, $21.99)                     3
    8. "Waging Heavy Peace" by Neil Young
(Blue Rider Press, $30.00)                    2
    9. "Guinness World Records 2013"          
(Guinness World Records)                  5
    10. "Mugged" by Ann Coulter
(Sentinel, $26.95)                            7
  Week ended Oct 7, 2012, powered by
Nielsen BookScan © 2012 The Nielsen Company.

 (Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Jeffrey Benkoe)

Daniel Radcliffe, the actor famous for playing Harry Potter, turned 23 on Monday.

Starring in the eight film adaptations of the best-selling book series by J.K. Rowling, Radcliffe truly brought the title character to life. Since his role as the famous boy wizard, the young actor has forged an unconventional path towards a serious acting career, starring in everything from a twisted psychological play to a romantic comedy.

Radcliffe has embodied and shaped our understanding of Harry Potter. From reading the books, I had always envisioned Harry as stubborn, impulsive, burdened by a Messiah complex, moody when older, yet always courageous and loyal. In the movies, Radcliffe portrays all of these traits, but adds innocent charm to the boy wizard. Harry seems steady, serious, and strong-willed when he battles Voldemort’s incarnations in the first films, but the actor’s wide blue eyes, short stature, delicate cheeks, and circular glasses remind us how young the wizard is. Even in the bleak final film, Radcliffe steps towards Voldemort shakily, hesitantly. The actor physically emphasizes how much Harry is playing everything by ear – an important detail that makes him so relatable and believable as a teenage hero.

Post-Potter, Radcliffe has proven himself to be beyond maturity. Like the overburdened wizard himself, Radcliffe seems to have grown up too fast — he has already forced himself to stop drinking to prevent alcoholism. Yet professionally, he has not become a degenerate child star. On the contrary, Radcliffe has committed himself to a serious acting career. He has strayed from typical teen films; his post-Potter films include horror/thriller The Woman in Black and Beat poetry film Kill Your Darlings. In his theater debut, he won critical praise for the psychological stage drama Equus, in which he portrayed a 17-year old that blinds six horses with a spike and he went completely naked for an episode of religio-erotic worship to a horse. But he is not a fun-killer — he has starred in the comedic musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and will be in the upcoming romantic comedy, F Word. Rather than devising a career strategy, Radcliffe is true to his artistic interests, choosing only quality projects that grab his attention. His creative spirit goes beyond drama — as a bookworm, he spends most of his money on books, he writes poetry, and he publishes short stories; he appreciates underground and punk rock music.

Radcliffe, with his definitive portrayal of Harry Potter, was the heart of the Harry Potter films. While he has yet to separate entirely from the wizard, Radcliffe has proved that he is becoming a serious artistic force.

daniel radcliffe,emma waston,harry potter

Friendly: Daniel Radcliffe was spotted getting cosy with a co-star on the set of his new movie, Kill Your Darlings, in Harlem, New York

Daniel Radcliffe Calls Robert Pattinson Sexy

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