Though Ed Champion mines it for expert parody and Sarah Weinman isn’t buying a word, Christopher Hitchens’ New York Times Book Review cover article on J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fine piece of work. Hitchens does not appear to have cared very much about Harry Potter before getting this assignment — though there is a treacly bit here in which he notices his young daughter enjoying the books — and he attempts to make his article worthwhile by placing the phenomenon in sociological context. This is the same tactic I would have tried in Hitchens’ position, since I don’t care much about Harry Potter either (and two of my three kids know that Lemony Snicket’s books were much better, though my oldest daughter remains a Rowling loyalist).
So, bring out the context. Hitchens correctly places the Harry Potter books within the old tradition of popular British novels about posh boarding schools, and points to the fact that, in previous generations:
… boys (and girls) from the poorer quarters of industrial towns and from the outer edges of the English-speaking Empire would invest some part of their pocket-money to keep up with the adventures of Billy Bunter, Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Jack Blake and the other blazer-wearing denizens of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s.
Hitchens brings in George Orwell, Oswald Mosley, Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell, and in one paragraph manages to mention the Gestapo, Stalin’s gulags and George W. Bush’s vocabulary. This is okay with me since I didn’t really want to read about Harry Potter anyway, though somebody who did want to might feel slightly cheated.
What’s wrong with a good skewering? Richard Brookhiser doesn’t have a big problem with the history inside Seizing Destiny: How America Grew From Sea to Shining Sea by Richard Kluger, but he hates Kluger’s bombastic and convoluted prose, telling us:
If I had not agreed to review this book, I would have stopped after five pages. After 600, I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown.
That’s some pretty good imagery. Kathryn Harrison’s review of Afterwards, a novel by Rachel Seiffert about scarred war veterans back home with their families, doesn’t make me feel like I’m inside a bass drum banged on by a clown, but it might make me feel like I’m inside a cello played by a third-seater. I’ve read many of Kathryn Harrison’s dull and earnest reviews in this publication and I have yet to be impressed by either her enthusiasm or her insights. Seiffert’s novel might be noteworthy, but this workmanlike treatment does not make it seem so, even though it is a favorable review.
Emily Eakin, on the other hand, grabs me with this opener in reviewing Christine Kenneally’s The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language:
Academia, unlike every other sector of our culture, has apparently been considered too dull and esoteric to merit a reality show, but now there’s a natural vehicle: evolutionary linguistics, an emerging field awash in colorful personalities, wacky experiments and enough conflict to carry several seasons.
I’m also interested in Maxine Swann’s Flower Children, a hippie family portrait summarized by Lydia Millet, and I’m not sure whether or not I’m interested in Jerry Stahl’s odd Love Without, reviewed by Tom Shone, or Richard Lourie’s Anne Frank-inspired A Hatred For Tulips, reviewed by Elena Lappin. I think I’ll have to read Tova Reich’s My Holocaust first.
Paul Greenberg’s endpaper on Ernest Hemingway’s legacy as a fisherman runs the numbers on how many tuna and marlin might be alive today if Hemingway hadn’t been such a showoff. I had low expectations when I began this article, but Greenberg works his thesis well enough to win me over by the end.