Tree of Smoke.

I know the site’s been flaky today. The server is fine but WordPress is hanging up and I’ve had to have hosting company restart it twice.

I’ll be on Mike & Mike in the Morning on Wednesday at 7:40 am EST, after which, I’m going on vacation for a week, so this will probably be the last post here till Veterans’ Day. And – in case that wasn’t clear enough – there will be no Klawchat this week.

So, Tree of Smoke … 614 pages, read the whole damn thing, still have no idea what the point was, why I care about any of the characters or who the main character even was, what any of the threads had to do with each other, and why author Denis Johnson’s prose was so disjointed, mixing florid descriptions with poorly used profanity. (In fact, given that most of the novel is set in Vietnam during the war, I actually expected more profanity.) There’s no plot. Stories don’t start and end; we get the middle, sort of, and then somebody dies, and it’s over. The novel is full of allusions to the Bible, and a few references to other religions, but none of them made any sense to me on their own or in clarifying the point of the book. I thought I caught a few continuity issues in some of the subplots, but it’s possible that I was too bored to remember what was going on.

I could probably do a better job of taking this novel apart, but by the time I finished last night I wanted nothing more to do with it, and besides, this review from the Atlantic does a much, much better job than I could have hoped to do, even if I’d started the book with the intention of verbally lighting it on fire.

Anyway, I actually just finished the audiobook version of SuperFreakonomics, which was fantastic, but that review will have to wait till after the vacation. I will say that the brouhaha over the global warming chapter seems misplaced, and I’m guessing the critics haven’t read the entire chapter.

The reading list for the vacation – I probably won’t read all of these, but I have a minor phobia of running out of books – includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Remains of the Day, The Case of the Missing Books, Cold Comfort Farm, and And a Bottle of Rum.

The Secret Life of Bees and Losers Live Longer.

Last night’s hit on the Brian Kenny Show is up. Will be on AllNight tonight (taped), First Take on ESPN2 tomorrow at 11 am EDT, and ESPN 710 in Los Angeles tomorrow at 1:12 pm PDT.

UPDATE: Analysis of last night’s trades is up now.

I had avoided Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees because it looked like chick-lit – not crappy chick-lit like Luann Rice or Nicholas Sparks, just chick-lit with higher ambitions. When I saw the pull quote from the Baltimore Sun‘s review that referred to Kidd as “a direct literary descendant of Carson McCullers,” I decided to give the book a shot, since I loved McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Sun reviewer was way, way off base; where McCullers’ work is suffused with sorrow yet written in beautiful, thoughtful prose, Bees is sentimental and predictable with unremarkable writing.

The story is narrated by Lily, a preteen girl who vaguely remembers a childhood accident when she was four years old where she picked up a gun and shot her mother while her parents were fighting. She’s haunted by guilt and her lack of memories of her mother, and lives with an unloving and occasionally abusive father who appears to want no part of her, handing off the task of rearing her to one of the black peach-pickers on his farm, Rosaleen. When the Civil Rights Act is passed and Rosaleen goes into town to vote, she ends up in an argument with three local redneck racists, which leaves her beaten up and arrested; Lily decides to spring her and they both run away to a small town in South Carolina where Lily thinks her mother once visited or lived. Once there, they run into three sisters* straight out of The Well of Stock Characters, including the most cliched of all, the wise older black woman who dispenses sound advice on matters life and spirit. As you might imagine, someone dies, Lily’s father shows up, there’s a lot of crying, and the end is heart-warming but just a touch ridiculous.

* The wise woman is played by Queen Latifah in the film version, where all three sisters are much younger than their counterparts in the book. What I find interesting is that another sister is played by Sophie Okenodo, who probably seldom finds herself as only the second-most beautiful woman in a movie, which had to be the case here with the third sister played by Alicia Keys. That’s some good casting work.

I couldn’t really get past the vaguely patronizing portrayals of black women in the book, and of course, just about every male character is one-dimensional and the dimension is unflattering. The lone exception is the lone African-American male to get any significant page time, a teenaged boy named Zach who is one-dimensional in how good he is. The dialogue is clumsy and heavy, laden with Big Meaning, Kidd hit only a few notes right for me – I enjoyed her portrayal of the feminist twist on Catholicism that the sisters and their friends practice, and some of the beekeeping information was interesting although the metaphors were a bit obvious – but on the whole it wasn’t worth my time.

Also disappointing was Russ Atwood’s Losers Live Longer, the most recent release from Hard Case Crime, a boutique publisher of hard-boiled detective fiction, both new works and out-of-print novels that deserve reissue. Atwood put together a strong, tight story with just the right number of characters and twists, but his writing and dialogue were sloppy and occasionally cringeworthy (such as the 40-something white detective who says, “Homey don’t play that” about fifteen years after the phrase was last popular or relevant). He also falls into the trap that Raymond Chandler warned against in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” – don’t make characters do unrealistic things just to push your plot forward. The detective character makes a couple of extremely dumb and obvious mistakes (such as not noticing that a potential client is named “Jane Dough”) that require us to forget that before, he was aware of what was going on around him.

Next up: Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

The Death of the Heart.

TV today – ESPNEWS at 2:40 and Outside the Lines in the 3 pm half-hour, both EDT.

Articles: Preview of the signing deadline. First report from the Under Armour Game. Second report should be up this afternoon.

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart appears on both the TIME and Bloomsbury lists and ranked 84th on the Modern Library 100; TIME‘s Richard Lacayo praised the way Bowen used the main character, 16-year-old ingenue/orphan Portia, to reveal the cruelty of the characters around her: “In the mirror of her innocent eyes, experience will catch a glimpse of its own reflection. It’s not a pretty picture.”

This theme was unmistakeable, as Portia is particularly useful to Bowen in laying bare the selfish, jealous, spiteful nature of Anna, wife of Portia’s half-brother Thomas; after Portia’s parents die, she goes to stay with Anna and Thomas in London, only to find herself tied up in the quiet, seething resentment and anger between them, Anna’s paramours (whether consummated or not isn’t quite clear, although I don’t think it needs to be), and that most essential element in any English novel, the servants. Bowen does infuse some comic elements, but the novel’s greatest strength is in her descriptive prose:

Portia had learnt one dare never look for long. She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learn shyness from the alarm they precipitate. Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered – they dare come to rest nowhere but on a point in space; their homeless intentness makes them appear fanatical. They may move, they may affront, but they cannot communicate. You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face – what becomes of the child later you do not know.

Bowen also has a little fun with caricatures, not of whole characters but of little traits, some humorous, some shocking:

She walked about with the rather fate expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered, but nothing had so far happened to her…

But ultimately, The Death of the Heart is dull. Very little happens; Portia falls for one of Anna’s beaux, the shiftless, irresponsible Eddie, earning the scorn of just about everyone around her and heading for an inevitable heartbreak at Eddie’s hands. Bowen focuses so heavily on emotions and settings that the plot, while not truly thin, is short, and the novel’s end brought release from the oppressive air of the time period.

Next up: Non-fiction with Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, the story of his year in exile in a tiny mountain village in southern Italy.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Klawchat Thursday 1 pm EDT.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World came before his magnum opus (and top-ten entry on the Klaw 100) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and having read the latter book first, I can see HBW as a buildup to the later masterwork, where Murakami was still honing his storycraft. The voice is unmistakably his, as is the raucuously inventive plot, but it’s less cohesive than TWUBC or the similarly amazing Kafka on the Shore.

HBW tells two stories in alternating chapters, with the connection only becoming apparently at or just after the book’s midpoint. The main storyline revolves around a narrator who is a Calcutec, a person responsible for encrypting data in his brain, which has been surgically altered to allow for separate, independent access of the two halves of the cerebrum (?). He’s called in for a special, top-secret project by a mysterious hermit-like possibly-mad scientist who knows more than he lets on.

The second storyline is mysterious, as the narrator has just arrived in a strange Town where time exists but moves on forever – not in an infinite loop, where time repeats, but with neither beginning nor end, to say nothing of purpose. People in the Town have no names, no identities beyond their assigned roles, and no feelings. The Town is walled – by a Wall, of course – and there is no way out, although the narrator is never explicitly described as a prisoner and seems to be a VIP of sorts. Its nature is deliberately vague, and only becomes clear after Murakami connects the two plots.

Unfortunately, Murakami appears to have started with the idea of writing one novel and decided midstream to write a different one. In the first half of the book, it appears that the narrator is going to be sucked into an underworld battle between factions fighting over what appears to be control of critical data that he has been encrypting. He’s threatened and injured, goes on the lam … and that plot line ends there, with no return or hint of resolution, and it’s never quite clear what his assailants were after or what they decided to do in the day and a half that follows the assault.

Murakami’s easy, almost conversational style – like having a conversation with a slightly crazy person – and gift for creating memorable side characters was already in full effect in HBW, so it’s an enjoyable read, and he creates plenty of tension to propel the reader through the book. He goes off on an explanatory tangent mid-book, where he has to explain to the reader some bit of science or (in this case) mock science so that the overall plot will make sense, and it’s a jarring interruption to the flow of the story and the prose; it’s a crutch of a weak or inexperienced writer, and Murakami didn’t use it in either of the two books by him that I’d previously read.

If you haven’t read Murakami before, I’d strongly recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over HBW. Wind-Up Bird is, on its surface, the story of a man whose wife disappears under odd circumstances, sending him on a quest not just to find her, but to find himself. This type of introspective journey forms a part of the ultimate uber-plot in HBW, but it’s incomplete and not as all-consuming as Wind-Up Bird, a book that possesses your mind as the dream of a deep slumber. HWB is best for Murakami completists.

Next up: Alan Lightman’s Ghost.

Tropic of Cancer.

I hated this book. It’s not a novel, certainly; filling 300 pages with f-bombs and see-you-next-Tuesdays without regard for plot or character does not a novel make. There is one sequence, covering about 3% of the book, that might actually be called a plot, but the rest is the self-serving and often vile ramblings of Miller’s alter-ego narrator. I’m a little Homer Simpsonish in that I like stories. When I pick up a novel, I want a story. Miller didn’t bother with one. Somehow it still made the TIME, Modern Library (#50), and Radcliffe (#84) 100s.

And since there’s little more to say on that front, here’s the Klaw anti-10, the ten books I’ve read through and hated the most.

10. A Death in the Family, James Agee.

Reviewed in December of 2007. Depressing, but also incoherent and distant.

9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon

I know many of you loved it. I found it simplistic and totally derivative of the first book of The Sound and the Fury, and was put off by the diatribes Haddon put into the protagonist’s mouth. And it was boring. Other than that it rocked.

8. The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos.

Reviewed in January. Other than occasionally making me hungry with its descriptions of Cuban food, the book has nothing to recommend it. It’s definitely in the Miller tradition of sex-as-bodily-function writing, but I’m pretty sure Hijuelos was trying to be lascivious, whereas Miller was just writing whatever words he vomited out of his brain.

7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Difficult prose, the merest shadow of a plot, and a completely bizarre and long tangent on the specific physical characteristics of hell. I know I’m eventually going to crater and read Ulysses, but let’s just say starting Joyce with Portrait because it was short was a Pedroia-esque error on my part.

6. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

I would guess that of the TIME 100, this book is the most-read among BBWAA members, most of whom have told me they liked it. I found the title character to be insipid and immature and self-justifying and I wanted to smack him for about 300 pages. Grow up already.

5. Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Perhaps the only major work of African-American literature that I didn’t like – and oh boy did I not like it. It was never clear to me what the book was about; there was brutality, but to what end? I also felt no connection or empathy with the main character, John, which made the whole exercise seem like a waste of time.

4. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

More plot than Joyce or Miller, which is saying little. Three parts, the middle being the shortest and containing all of the significant events. I don’t love Hemingway’s sparse prose but it’s ambrosia compared to Woolf’s.

3. Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence

Another utterly pointless book, also banned or criticized for obscenity. The introduction to the edition of Tropic of Cancer that I read argues that Miller is the only author to write properly about sex, saying that Lawrence and James Joyce had “too much religion in their veins.” I have to say I found neither depiction of sex all that compelling, but at least Lawrence has the tension that arises from a set of externally-imposed sexual mores coming into contact with the physical and emotional nature of sex. Miller wrote about sex as a bodily function; getting laid was like taking a dump, more reminiscent of the random sex of Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms than anything approaching erotica. Anyway, Women in Love is primarily notable for nothing much of anything happening until someone dies in a skiing accident, after which the book mercifully ends.

2. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller.

Suck. QED.

1. Moby Dick, Herman Melville

If this is the Great American Novel, everyone should just put away their typewriters and go home. They chase a whale that may or may not exist. There are extended passages that seem to be straight out of a 19th century whaleopedia. They chase some more. That’s pretty much the book, and the prose is maddeningly slow. Yet it was #5 on the Novel 100 and will come up in any discussion of great novels in the English language. My wife was an English major but never read the book for any class; she asked one of her college professors if she should read it, knowing it was considered a classic, and he gave an emphatic, “No.” He was probably later denied tenure for literary apostasy.

That list includes four books on the Novel 100 and five on the TIME 100, so even those rankings haven’t been fully reliable as my reading lists.

Next up: The City and the Mountains by Jose Maria Eça de Queirós, which I am already reading and enjoying.


I saw the title of David Denby’s new polemic, Snark, and I simply had to have it. Whether it was pro-snark or anti-snark, it didn’t matter. As it turns out, it’s anti-snark, and it’s awful – the whine of a man who, I’m guessing, has been the target of snark and doesn’t like it.

Snark‘s biggest problem is that it’s not clear on its subject: Denby struggles to define snark, and redefines it on the fly as the situation suits him. Denby gives examples of what he considers snark, but he is using “snark” as a catchall term to identify and sequester anything he doesn’t like. It seems to me that snark, to Denby, means any content or commentary that insults its target or adversary; any content or commentary that is maybe kind of unfriendly or might hurt someone’s feelings; any content or commentary that slanders or libels its target; and any content or commentary that criticizes Barack Obama. Insults and calumny are their own categories, and they likely have no defenders; a book that says “slander is bad” is somewhat tautological in nature, as no one is running around saying that it’s good, and slander is bad as much as water is wet and David Denby is confused about snark. Unfriendly content is snark, in Denby’s world, when he decides that it’s snark; he makes a point of excusing several snarky pundits whose snarktacular ways are an essential part of their popular appeal, such as Steven Colbert.

I have no objection to Denby taking the opportunity to praise the best satirists and ironists out there, but his inability to pin down snark – and the ways he takes pains to say that he recognizes the benefit of some forms of what can only be called ridicule – frustrates the entire work. It’s best encapsulated in the schizophrenic chapter on Maureen Dowd, the vitriolic and popular Washington-based writer for the New York Times. I’m no fan of Dowd’s, but Denby’s complaint – in short, that she can be cutting in ways that don’t necessarily inform the reader – is weak, and once again, he seems to be most up in arms when she’s attacking Democratic candidates, particularly Obama.

The book is short and is unbalanced in its approach to dissecting snark or whatever it is that Denby is dissecting. An early “fit” (what Denby calls his chapters – I suppose that’s supposed to be cute, but it came off as pretentious) describes the history of snark, with a long tangent on Juvenal, perhaps the progenitor of snark or at least one of its earliest practitioners. He deserved a mention, not a long digression with samples of his work (which, by the way, sounded a lot more like crude insult than snark). Similarly, the passage on the origin of the word “snark” – from Lewis Carroll’s epic poem “The Hunting of the Snark” – doesn’t have much bearing on the current meaning of the term. I think Denby’s real motivation for spending so much time on the poem is that he likes saying “Boojum.”

I’m not the only one who thought Snark to be a waste of a few hours; it received a strongly negative review from the Times, and I found this point-by-point review of Snark that viewed the book as validation for the snarkers.

Next up: I’m a little backlogged on writeups – I just finished Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and have started Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Suck.

I don’t think I have completed and hated a book as thoroughly as I hated Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. I can hardly decide where to start in listing what I disliked.

    • The two main characters. The Mambo Kings are two brothers who emigrate from Cuba to the United States. Nestor, by far the more interesting of the two characters, is either depressed or just lovelorn, and is dead before the book’s midpoint. Cesar, the older brother, is dissolute, obsessed with his penis, drunk nearly all of the time, and depressing as hell as he approaches his own death.
      The sex. I don’t mind if there’s sex in a novel as long as it’s well-written and not gratuitous, but this entire book was full of passages that would have won the Bad Sex in Fiction award had it existed at the time of the book’s publication. The novel must hold the record for the most uses of the word “pubic” in any publication that isn’t sold with a black wrapper around it. Hijuelous treats us to images like “the head of his penis weeping semen tears;” a woman’s “bad habit of yanking hard on his quivering testicles at the moment of his climax;” almost clinical descriptions of straight-up, oral, and anal sex; and – most disturbing of all – a reference to Cesar thinking about being in his mother’s womb while he performs oral sex on women.
      The story – or lack thereof. This isn’t about the rise and fall of the brothers’ band, called the Mambo Kings. When Nestor dies, the band dies; the book is almost two separate novels cobbled together, although neither would have been much better had it stood alone. It’s not about Cesar’s descent into a physical condition that matches his broken emotional state, or his lifelong struggle to overcome the abuse he suffered as a child at his father’s hands. It’s not about Nestor’s depression or melancholy, since he’s dead before we get much insight into that. It’s about Cesar whoring and drinking and eating his way through middle age into an early death.
  • The best explanation for this awful mess that I could conceive is that Hijuelos was trying to offer some sort of meditation on mortality, how potentially short our lives are (Nestor) or how we might look back when at death’s door and consider and reconsider our actions (Cesar). What we get, instead, is a catalog of Cesar’s sexual exploits and regular references to his acid reflux. Hijuelos even manages to make food boring, with lists of foods at the huge meals the Cuban brothers would eat but none of the descriptive language needed to bring those foods to life – although, given the crude and methodical descriptions Hijuelos gives us of sex acts, perhaps we should be thankful that he didn’t ruin food for his readers as well.

    I have actually seen the 1992 adaptation, The Mambo Kings, starring a then-unknown-in-America Antonio Banderas as Nestor, but the film was very loosely based on the book, and the interpretation of what comes after Nestor’s death bears little relation to Hijuelos’ text. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Next up: Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, by Assia Djebar, named one of the twelve best African books of the twentieth century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 2001.

    The Riddle of the Compass.

    Amir Aczel’s The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World isn’t as strong as his first two books, Fermat’s Last Theorem (a very math-heavy book but one that relies on the centuries-long efforts to solve that problem for narrative greed) and God’s Equation (a more accessible work about great “blunder” by Albert Einstein that turned out to be correct). Although the story within Compass is mildly interesting, the book – just 159 pages in paperback, including diagrams and a few blank pages between chapters – is so superficial that we get neither story nor an interesting character. In fact, the predominant character in the book probably never existed.

    Aczel argues that the compass was, at the time it was invented, the most important invention since the wheel, and produces a reasonable case for the argument while splitting time between the western “invention” of the compass and the evidence for a much earlier invention in China, where the device was used in medicine and by magicians but seldom if ever used for navigation in a country that rarely took to the sea. He takes a detour into Italian history, including an interesting chapter on Amalfi (now known as a tourist mecca, but briefly a maritime power and a flourishing city-state) that is itself a digression from the early inquiry into the alleged inventor of the compass, Flavio Gioia. It seems likely that Gioia himself never existed, and while it’s amusing to see how a missing comma could lead to the creation of a historical personage, it’s not much of a basis for a book.

    Aczel accentutates the problem by himself glossing over details that, even if tangential, would add color to the book. While bemoaning both the west’s dismissive and patronizing treatment of Chinese culture during for most of the last millennium and China’s refusal (under multiple regimes) to reveal many scientific and medical secrets, he mentions the very recent discovery that an herb that Chinese doctors have long used as a treatment for malaria has had promising results in tests in western studies. He never mentions the plant’s name (it’s a type of wormwood known by the Latin name Artemisia annua) and lets the matter drop after the one-paragraph teaser.

    Next up: A little Wodehouse for the holidays, with a trip to Blandings Castle in Summer Lightning , available only in the compilation Life at Blandings.

    Snow Falling on Cedars.

    I meant to write up David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars over a week ago, but I got sucked into Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel and kept putting off the review, in large part because Cedars was so blah. It’s a heavy-handed story about racial prejudices on one of the San Juan Islands in Washington state a few years after World War II; a man of Japanese descent who was raised on the island and fought for the U.S. during the war stands accused of killing another local fisherman, and it’s not entirely clear whether the accusation is more than just racially motivated.

    While the core story is interesting – I continued reading to find out how the core mystery would be resolved – the novel itself is clumsy and amateurish. Guterson’s prose, which gets plaudits in pull quotes from reviewers, is atrocious, particularly his dialogue, which might as well have been pulled from a Law & Order: SVU episode; there’s one passage where an atheist soldier tells a military chaplain that he’s an atheist, that he’s the exception to the rule about there being no atheists in foxholes … who talks like that? No one I’ve ever met, and trust me, Harvard was full of people who spoke in unusual rhythms and keys.

    I also found that Guterson’s back-and-forth technique damaged the flow of the present-time plot line, the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, and the subplot involving the man who runs and writes the island’s newspaper and Kabuo’s wife, with whom the writer (Ishmael) had a love affair when the two were teenagers. The long and sometimes long-winded flashbacks decapitated the tension that Guterson built up during some of the courtroom scenes. He might have actually been better served cutting back and forth more frequently to keep the digressions shorter.

    Guterson also overplays the race card. Rather than letting the main stories – the criminal case, and the rise and fall of the romance between Ishmael and Kabuo’s wife – tell us the story of race, he puts his feelings on the subject into the mouths of his characters. It’s certainly realistic that Kabuo and his wife would complain about racism, but the extent to which they bring it up pushes the book slightly into “preachy” territory.

    As for Jonathan Strange, I’m just debating how high up the Klaw 100 it’ll be at the next revision of the list.

    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (film).

    If you haven’t read the book, I can’t imagine how confusing the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie would be. Even ignoring the standard “they left my favorite bit out” complaints – I have one too – the movie left out so much of the why from the book that I would imagine a number of viewers reached the final sequence in the Ministry of Magic wondering, “Who are they, and why are they there?”

    In that regard, HP5 was reminiscent of the the first film, which had a similar pacing and lack of tension problem. In trying to pack the movie with lots of interesting details from the books, the screenplays for the two films felt frantic, with short scenes and jarring transitions that rob the films of the tension that’s critical to understanding the importance of the final scenes. Without the book as a guide, an HP5 viewer won’t know what the Order of the Phoenix is or why it exists, or what the importance is of that glass bulb (it’s mentioned just once prior to the Ministry scenes), while building plot points like Voldemort’s intrusions into Harry’s mind are given short shrift. At the same time, some subplots were omitted or cut down to the point of irrelevance from the book. The students’ rebellion against Umbridge was dropped to a single scene, which meant that my favorite line from the entire series – “It unscrews the other way” – was dropped. The Harry-Cho storyline is absurdly compressed and would have been best omitted in its emasculated form.

    While the screenplay gets the bulk of the blame for this mess, someone else, likely the studio, is to blame for the short running time of only 128 minutes prior to the credits. The two-disc DVD edition contains about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, most of which would have at least helped give some body to and slow the pacing of the main film had they been included. (There is also a hilariously weird scene of Emma Thompson, sadly wasted in a minimal role in the film proper, making a mess of her meal at the welcome feast. There’s also a cute behind-the-scenes look hosted by Natalie Tena (Tonks), who is rather fetching in her lavender wig.) There’s little question that the substantial audience of readers who go to see the films will tolerate a 150-minute movie if it’s good enough, and there’s no reason why the studio couldn’t flesh it out with a “director’s cut” that runs as long as three hours. What we may have here, however, is the manifestation of the old saw about the Chicago Cubs: If the revenues are going to be huge no matter how mediocre the product, why spend more on the product and cut into profits?

    The film had some high points. The special effects continue to improve; the Floo network transitions are quick and realistic, and the scenes in the Ministry foyer were very impressive. Tena was also thoroughly underutilized as Nymphadora Tonks, both because she’s adorable but also because the character gives Harry another person in his orbit who clearly cares for him. The young ladies continue to get cuter, although Evanna Lynch is too cute to be playing Luna Lovegood and the space-cadet voice was a bit cloying. And the sequence in the Ministry of Magic worked reasonably well because it’s supposed to be frenetic, although again, it could have been longer. It’s a shame that the writers, the director, and the studio are wasting such rich, vivid material; I wonder if twenty or thirty years hence, someone else will decide to “update” the series with a more serious attempt to bring the books to life.