Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger
I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books since I was a freshman in college (it’s amazing how going to college opened up my world in so many ways). I like to read and engage with the books at theoretical levels, and when I was taking an independent study, I encountered John Granger’s critical work on the novels. He writes from the perspective of a Christian academic who was at first skeptical of the novels and then became a fan after engaging with them theologically.
Granger discusses the novels in context of Christianity, and the themes that engage with spiritual issues important to most Christians. He touches on major themes and ideas then goes in-depth into the first six novels (The Deathly Hallows had not yet been published at the time of publication—I also have Granger’s The Deathly Hallows Lectures, which I am sure will update his readings). He touches on some interesting themes and Christian contexts which are sure to resonate with Conservative Christians who prioritize faith in their fiction.
I greatly appreciate Granger’s perspective, as it is more effective in appealing to Conservative Christians than a more liberal approach might have been. Granger himself sounds fairly conservative, so he knows his audience well and uses his academic skills in order to be persuasive to the people who can most benefit from his book.
That said, because I am not his target demographic, I chafed a bit at some of his arguments. For example, his cultural criticism is a little backward in that it talks about human rights issues being pro-life versus pro-choice while completely side-stepping issues related to the Iraq/Afghanistan wars waging during the early 2000s. Further, it does not delve into Rowling’s own complicated class politics which come into play with the house elves or strata of wizard families. Nevertheless, the book is useful and strong in the arguments it makes.
The Pigman by Robert Zindel
When I was a college student, my teaching mentors had young adult book recommendations for high school students. Let’s face it, high school English classes push classics but kids often read “easier” and more accessible picks. One of the classic young adult novels that my advisor and mentor teacher recommended was Paul Zindel’s The Pigman. I picked it up at a thrift sale and then promptly never read it until now.
Sophomores John and Lorraine play a prank on an old man, and it goes awry. But Mr. Pignetti, or The Pigman, is kind and lonely. He draws them into his world of imagination and childish joy in the simple things. Of course, this kind of utopia cannot last, and the teens must find a way to face the consequences of their careless and selfish actions.
I get the moral that Zindel was trying to convey, and it’s an important message in kindness and consideration for others’ boundaries and spaces. But I found the story profoundly irritating, because I hate reading about irresponsible teens who make inexplicably stupid choices. It’s not even just self-destructive choices, it’s really bad choices that affect other people in hurtful ways. I’m not going to say anything else, because I don’t want to spoil it for those who would consider reading it. But it was not a pleasurable or instructive reading experience, and I will not personally be recommending it to other readers. I think it’s more about content than any datedness—I’ve had several students read The Outsiders and love it, despite its clearly dated content and tone. This book was just…odd.
Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet
Have you ever met a book and fallen so deeply in love that finishing is a kind of regret? Welcome to Make Your Home Among Strangers, which gave me a major book hangover and inspired me to plan my fall semester courses, a task that had me dragging me feet for a few weeks. The book is moving, but it had special poignancy for my profession, and it inspired me to do and be better for my students.
Jennine Capó Crucet’s novel is set in two locations: a Cuban-immigrant Miami neighborhood, and a northern East Coast college (something along the lines of Brown or Amherst college). Our protagonist is Lizet, who went to a poor high school, decided to apply to a bunch of colleges, and miraculously got into an Ivy League-type school. The problem is, she is overwhelmed by the assumptions of her knowledge, racial stereotypes, and the sense that she doesn’t belong. When she goes back home for vacations, however, she doesn’t fit in there, either. Her neighborhood is caught in the crossfire of an immigrant conflict: Ariel Hernandez is a small boy whose mother died getting him to the United States, and how his father is suing for custody back in Cuba. Lizet watches the struggle unfold on a national stage, just as she tries to find her own footing between her old home and the new.
This story hit home for me, because I see Lizets every day. At my community college, I see students all the time who are trying to figure out their lives. Many are struggling to connect their home life with their own ambitions. And I cannot over-emphasize the importance of empathy towards these kinds of students. I was so fired up by this book that I’ll be teaching it in my Comp. 1 class this fall and pairing it with Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the film Moonlight. I’m really looking forward to the discussion.
The Battle for Middle-Earth by Fleming Rutledge
As a kid, I grew up with C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, but I missed out on The Lord of the Rings until much later. Several of my classmates in high school were huge Tolkien fans, and I was curious enough to give him a try once I graduated. I read The Hobbit between high school and college, and with the last film coming out, I spent the first semester of my freshman year in college reading The Lord of the Rings books in preparation for marathoning the films with my sister over Christmas break. It’s been a love affair ever since. I always find interesting tidbits in the books each time I read, although I confess that the theological threads have been more difficult to pick up.
This is where Fleming Rutledge’s most excellent The Battle for Middle-Earth emerges. Rutledge, a priest, emphasizes the theology behind The Lord of the Rings and sticks to a theological reading of the texts. Because he is clear about his methodology and does not focus on the literary aspects, it works. Rutledge explores the divine aspects of the texts, Christian fellowship, and the many thorny problems that tangle up the text and make it an unclear allegory. He argues that unlike Lewis’s texts, Tolkien’s are not traditionally allegorical and instead mirror the complex process of Christianity.
I’ve always struggled with the Gollum storyline at the end of The Return of the King. I wondered if this was a book about the Christian journey, how could Frodo possibly fail his quest? Rutledge declares that it’s the crux of the Christian experience: you can’t succeed on your own. You require Divine intervention to be able to do anything. This, to me, was a freeing concept, and one that has spurred me to rethink my journey a little less simplistically.
Dearie by Bob Spitz
My aunt gets me an eclectic variety of books for birthday and Christmas presents. Traditionally, an Alexander McCall Smith book works its way into the rotation, and thankfully, he writes enough to make for an annual present, but for some reason there was an off year. My aunt is a huge Julia Child fan, and so I found in my Christmas package one year the Bob Spitz biography Dearie. I knew who Child was growing up, and I’d enjoyed her boozy banter and casual ease in the kitchen (I don’t drink, so boozy banter is out for me, though I have worked for YEARS to feel easy in the kitchen). And, of course, I adored the Meryl Streep-led adaptation of Julie and Julia (the less said of Julie the better, right? Right). Therefore, I had few expectations of any biography but enjoyed my time with Julia immensely.
Julia Child wasn’t always a cook, and in fact, she didn’t really learn how to develop a palate or an aptitude for cooking until she moved to France. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Spitz lovingly covers her biography, starting with her parents’ meeting, family life, her childhood and adolescence, college years, and participating in the War effort. I didn’t realize the extent of her overseas life, nor that she met Paul through her international work. Once they marry and move to France, the familiarity of her biography starts to begin. I was fascinated to hear about the immense work that led to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as the history behind her television show (hooray for public television!). I also vaguely remembered her death, and I didn’t realize her agency in asserting the ability to die on her own terms without suffering, and it inspired me to see her courage till the very end.
You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy this biography, because it balances vivid anecdote with faithful detail to her life. I’m not much of a biography reader, but Spitz is a natural storyteller, and his subject was a colorful, interesting person whose life inspired me to live mine with more intentionality.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Family drama is a hit-or-miss genre for me, same with mystery. When I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You at my community college’s book sale, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I *was* happy to support the English department for a dollar. I have seen a few reviews around Cannonball Read, and I was interested to see for myself what the book would entail.
Lydia Lee disappears in the middle of the night in her 1970s suburban Ohio town, and is found dead in the nearby lake a few days later. This is not a spoiler: it’s the premise. The book starts with Lydia’s death and then moves backwards and currently in time to get us to this point. We get her parents’ backstory—her mom is white and her dad is of Chinese descent—which adds to the tensions that lead to Lydia’s disappearance. We see the family portrait that emerges from her death, as well as the varying perspectives from the characters enmeshed in the family drama.
Ng’s strength comes in addressing the questions whenever a young person dies: “How could this happen?” “Why did this happen?” Two of my husband’s former students were killed in a car accident before Thanksgiving this last year, and there was a surge of grief in our community as we grappled with the unfairness of death in people whose potential had not been met yet. I felt a resonance with the experience in the book, as family and acquaintances struggled to understand Lydia’s death or possible motivations.
Yet for me, this was not a five-star book. I feel like the drama heightened to melodrama—it just didn’t feel quite real or believable. Despite the time-travel aspect, the pacing felt off, and I sometimes got pulled out of the story with her flashbacks. It’s an interesting story, and Ng makes a provocative commentary on race relations in American history. It’s trying to achieve the status of a Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott novel, though it’s not quite there yet.
Last Orders by Graham Swift
I’d never read any Graham Swift before, but I picked up Last Orders in a thrift sale, not realizing that it had won a Man Booker Prize. I am trying to work my way through the Booker winners and nominees, and I’m just under half at my latest count. Swift is a contemporary British author, and I’ve heard his name mentioned many times in the academic work I referenced for my doctoral comps and beyond. I thought it was high time I gave him a read, and I am so glad I did. I will try and work my way through his canon now.
Last Orders appears to be an imitation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying at first blush, and the comparison does seem to hold up on a purely shallow understanding of the plot. Jack Dodds is a butcher who has died of stomach cancer, and he has requested that his best friends and his adopted son Vince take his ashes to the sea and scatter them at the Pier in Margate. This kickstarts the car trip to the seaside that the men undertake, with unexpected detours and confrontations. Now, this is where Swift diverges from Faulkner’s narrative: this isn’t just about family but about homosocial male friendships forged during and after World War II. This is about men being envious of each other and of their wives and children. Further, this is an examination of the British working class after the War and their attempts to build a future for future generations.
Swift’s style is crisp without being dense, and it’s also sly and evasive. You read midway through when you realize that there are secret relationships and hidden histories that his prose unpacks slowly. He’s infinitely more readable than Faulkner in this way, and I am so curious to see what the rest of his work will be like. I can see why this won the Booker, and I would recommend it to others, as well.