Overthinking Alexander McCall Smith: The Most Introverted Mystery Series In Existence

sunday-philosophy.jpgI love Alexander McCall Smith, but the first time I read The Sunday Philosophy Club, I got a little pissed off. Then I read the next one, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, and nearly threw the book across the room.

I don’t even know why these are shelved in the mystery section of the library. They are BARELY mysteries. They have no climax. Nothing really comes of anything that is found out, and our sleuth, Isabel Dalhousie, is almost always wrong.

Meanwhile, three quarters of each book consists of unmysterious day to day life, including a lot of lunches out, dinner parties, cooking risotto, spotting foxes in the back yard, walking around Edinburgh, strolls around art galleries, letter writing, and occasionally a bit of romance.

A complete list of the series’ peculiarities would be very long, but here is a summary of some of the more bizarre quirks:

  1. The titles have nothing to do with the books or even the story. The title of the first book, The Sunday Philosophy Club, refers to a club which never actually convenes. Other titles, like The Right Attitude To Rain, obliquely refer to a single conversation within the book which does not actually relate to anything else in the plot.
  2. Isabel Dalhousie can barely take a single step without being sent into a long rambling thoughts. These rambles will can be triggered by things she sees, things people say, or absolutely nothing at all. They often delve into history, phisosophical thought, morality (a common theme in McCall Smith’s work), or relate to the poetry of W. H. Auden.
  3. Isabel Dalhousie is independently wealthy with a lot of time on her hands. It is not particularly easy to relate to her unless you are a highly educated middle aged female millionaire who spends most of her time lunching with people and thinking about ethics.

I could thoroughly understand anyone who despised these books with the passion of a thousand suns.

And yet…

I gave them another chance while home for Christmas (my mother owns a lot of McCall Smith and I am slowly stealing her collection and transferring it to my house in Vancouver). And then I came home and ransacked the library and I am slowly eating my way through the whole series, which is surprisingly prolific.

Strangely, almost inexplicably, I love them now.

Once I stopped expecting them to be normal, or even at all interesting, their charm sucked me in.

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Overthinking: Profound Nonsense

I need to talk about how much I hate this quote:

darkestoftimesquote.jpg

It is SO VERY POPULAR.

Ask a group of Harry Potter fans for their favourite quotes, and this one will turn up half a dozen times.

I really, really, REALLY hate it. Not just because I am a purist and it is not from the books. That would simply make me dismiss it, the way I do this quote:

indreams.jpg

I don’t think that’s a “real” Harry Potter quote either and therefore I dismiss it, but I don’t hate it.  That one is fine.

What bothers me about the “turn on the light” quote is the fact that it is COMPLETE NONSENSE. It concerns me that no one seems to notice that.

What does this quote mean?

It starts out sounding fine: “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times”. I’m fine with that part, because maybe that is true. I don’t know. I feel like you would have to ask a concentration camp survivor if happiness could be found in times THAT dark, but who am I to say what is or is not possible for the human spirit?

But then the quote takes a terrible turn – “if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

…What?

WHAT LIGHT?

Oh, it sounds clever, because of the word “darkest” earlier in the sentence. But in that case we have a clear metaphorical understanding of what “dark times” are. Anyone hearing that knows that “the darkest of times” represents a time of unhappiness or misery, or possibly war or political upheaval. That’s fine.

But I just don’t understand. What does the light represent? How does one “turn on the light” when one is mired in the darkest of times? Where is this happiness switch and how to I flick it??

When I look at the context of the quote within the movie (Prisoner of Azkaban), I only have more questions. Here’s the context – Dumbledore is addressing the students of Hogwarts and he is telling them that Dementors are guarding Hogwarts against the escaped criminal Sirius Black.

*dramatic violin*

“A word of caution: dementors are vicious creatures. They will not distinguish between the one they hunt and the one who gets in their way. Therefore I must warn each and every one of you to give them no reason to harm you. It’s not in the nature of a dementor to be forgiving. But you know, happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”

*random wave of hand past a candle flame which doesn’t even flicker or anything*

Does the quote make more sense now?

No! It makes LESS sense!

You would expect that quote to be somehow related to dark times, or misery, or happiness, or CANDLES or SOMETHING. But no, it’s a random musing spoken with a weird intensity that crops up out of nowhere while a violin goes nuts in the background as if it were a Hitchcock film.

What does happiness have to do with the viciousness of dementors? What light could he be referring to? Dumbledore sounds like a drunken uncle at a wedding, spouting pithy phrases that are completely unrelated to anything that is happening right now.

I mean, it would have made a little sense if it had come up in the context of what Dementors do – if he had said “Dementors, by the way, make you feel really miserable if you get close, so do remember to turn on the metaphorical light if you suddenly find yourself from suffering their effects, okay?”

It still wouldn’t have been helpful, but at least it would have made some contextual sense.

I feel like he could have discussed Patronus spells, or advised them to carry chocolate around the way Professor Lupin does.

lupineat.jpg

That’s advice I can get behind.

The more I ponder the “turn on the light” quote, the less helpful I find it and the more annoyed I become. For example, when taken in the context of Dementors in general, I think about the fact that Dementors were Rowling’s physical manifestation of depression: they suck all of your happy memories away, leaving you mired in the misery of your own darkest thoughts.

Dumbledore’s comment about how easy it is to find happiness in dark times if one “remembers” to flick on this unspecified light suddenly resembles the useless contrivances that people spout at depressives.

allie-brosh-hyperbole-and-a-half-panels-copyright-2013

(aside: everyone should read this about depression)

He makes it sound so easy – oh, feeling unhappy? Did you remember to just turn on the light? But where is this light? Why would I have forgotten about it? How does one operate it? Does it need to be plugged in? Do I need to change a light bulb first?

I don’t have a problem with metaphorical language, either. I enjoy poetry. I just have a problem with bull shit, and the more I think about that damn quote, the more sure I become that it is, in fact, bull shit.

Did you know that they did a whole study on bull shit?

It was published in the journal Judgement And Decision Making in November, 2015. You should read it, it’s marvelous. The researchers, who use the word “bull shit” again and again with evident glee, discuss phrases which they call “pseudoprofound” – in other words, which SOUND profound until you think about them and realize that they are nonsense.

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.

They used a tweet by Deepak Chopra as an example of “pseudo profound” statements (aka bull sh*t):

(c) “Attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”

[…]The vagueness of (c) indicates that it may have been constructed to impress upon the reader some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.

I feel like this Dumbledore quote is exactly that – constructed to impress upon the audience some sense of profundity at the expense of a clear exposition of meaning or truth.

I want you to compare that to a REAL Dumbledore quote written by Rowling herself which I think is genuinely profound:

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

This is not nonsense. I know exactly what he is saying – he is saying that by spending all of your time dreaming about something, we will miss out on the reality of what is going on around us. I get that. It is pithy, but it also MEANS something.

Here’s another great one:

“It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.” – JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Again, great quote, not nonsense. Dumbledore is saying that when we fear death and darkness, it is because we don’t know what lies ahead. We don’t know what happens after death, and so we feel afraid. We don’t know why danger might lie in the dark, and so we feel afraid.

…Maybe we should remember to turn on the effing light.

Whatever that means.

Overthinking Fandoms: People Are People, Everywhere

Have you ever been baffled by how many fans within fandoms seem to miss the point?

Let’s start with Harry Potter, since I was just speaking about it recently. The story of Harry Potter promotes good actions over bad, chides against judging people are purely good or purely evil, and warns against the mistreatment of persecution of others regardless of race, wealth, personal ability etc.

The “bad guys” in the story are those who mistreat sentient magical races such as elves and centaurs, consider themselves superior to non-magical people (muggles), and are openly classist and racist (although instead of being racist against people with different skin tones, they are instead racist towards, say, half-giants and the like).

These bad guys have a symbol – one that they brand on their own skin to mark themselves as followers of Voldemort. It is called the Dark Mark.

…and a lot of fans have branded themselves with the same mark.

dark marks galore

Now, I’m not saying this is WRONG.

Sure, it’s the Harry Potter sign of hatred, persecution, and murder, similar to the swastika in real life, but unlike a swastika, no real people have ever suffered or died in the name of this symbol.

So it isn’t hateful or hurtful or insensitive or anything like that. It’s PRETEND.

But it’s also BEMUSING.

Surely, if you want to brand yourself with the dark mark, you identify in some way with the “bad guys” in this series. You love the books AND the symbol so much that you are willing to put it on your own flesh in imitation of these imaginary characters.

And that baffles me. I mean, if you love a series that promotes a message of acceptance and love, then why would you also identify with the symbol WITHIN the series of rejection and hatred?

To me, it’s like reading/watching Schindler’s List and thinking, “Nazis. Those guys seem cool. What a great story!”

my-favorite-character-was-voldemort.jpg

There’s more, too.

In the Harry Potter fandom lexicon, the word “muggle” is used to refer to people who don’t like Harry Potter, haven’t read Harry Potter, or even just anyone who is unpleasant.

In other words, it is used as a mild insult.

shut up muggle.jpg

The above meme exemplifies the sort of disconnect I see – Hermione, champion of all disadvantaged folk,would never use “Muggle” as an insult.

People love the Harry Potter world, and they place themselves within it in the place where they feel that they fit most. If that means that they place themselves amongst the “bad guys”, then so be it. They will proudly  brand themselves with a Dark Mark, use the word “muggle” as a put-down and won’t seem to suffer any cognitive dissonance from the actual message of the books.

This is not a problem with the Harry Potter fandom.

This is just people being people.

Look at The Hunger Games.

My husband and I have been struck again and again by the fact that the marketing for the Hunger Games films have been addressing the public as if we are living in The Capitol. Before the first film, there were “tribute guide” books published, addressing readers as citizens of the capital.

tribute guide

They even have a website and makeup line dedicated to the Capitol “look”.

capitolcouture

Why do they do it?

Because of COURSE people identify with the Capitol. We live in a wealthy, first world society that loves to watch the suffering of others in reality shows. We don’t identify with the starving, trodden-on, marginalized people of the Districts.

Even among the actual fandom, not just the marketing machine, people unconsciously identify with the Captiol. You see people pitting their favourite characters from other fandoms in a Hunger Games sort of idea. You know, as if they are the Capitol and want to pit characters against each other in fights to the death.

fandomgames

Tired of book/movie fandoms? Let’s talk about Stephen Universe.

Stephen Universe is a cartoon show that adults have embraced for is feminist-friendly, queer-friendly, body positive themes. They are delighted by this inclusive show that promotes love and acceptance in all of its forms, and that represents super heros as overweight, or ethnic in appearance.

steven-universe.jpeg

So when some fans redraw those characters to look thinner or whiter, the other fans get understandably upset.  Not only is it racist/fat shaming and so on to suggest that the characters would look better if they were less diverse, but by redrawing characters to look more mainstream, surely they are missing the point of the show.

…Except here’s the thing – some of those angry fans become frighteningly hateful over this missed point, until it begins to appear that they themselves have also missed the point, even driving one ignorant young teen to suicide over their hate of her whitewashed fan art in a drama which perfectly exemplifies the sort of argument where absolutely everyone is in the wrong.

The fact is that people love to love things, but they don’t really like to change who they are based on that love.

No matter what a bigot loves, they will use that love to glorify their bigotedness. Some will use the Bible, some will use the Quran. Some will use a book series, or tv show. The message of these books or shows seems to matter less to the overall populace than the actual world within it.

If someone is looking for a God on their side, they may latch on to the Bible and find a reason to justify any kind of action in God’s name, no matter how vengeful. If someone loves magic, they may latch onto Harry Potter. A vampire fan may love Twilight or Anne Rice (but probably not both). Then they will use the inspiration that they draw from these sources to make a world of their own liking which is independent to the message intended by the original creator.

Of course, there are other kinds of people in the world, too. They will use their love of The Hunger Games to fund raise a food drive, or their love of the Bible to collect warm blankets for the homeless. hg-food-drive

But within every fan group or religion (and really, are the two so different?), you will have the people who seem to have missed the message. Which, I have to say, is a bit of a bummer from an author’s point of view.

An author who creates a story that preaches acceptance needs to also accept that some of her fans will use her story to justify ostracism. There will be people out there who love the characters she dislikes most, and hate her favourites.

In other words, the fans will take a certain amount of ownership and their interpretation of the world and characters will be as diverse as they are.

JK Rowling has accepted this with grace, often just saying that she is amused by some of her fans’ interpretations of her text, and the exclusionary behaviour of some of the fans.

“I discovered MuggleNet that first-ever afternoon and I went in the chatroom, and it was so funny. I was treated with outright contempt. [Laughter.] It was funny, I can’t tell you.[…]”Yeah, yeah, shut up, you’re not a regular, you don’t know a thing.” You can imagine!” – JK Rowling, 2005

I wonder if they called her a muggle?

She takes the right attitude. Some might be tempted to get upset – “Hey, I wrote a book about not judging people based on first impressions and here you are doing just that.” But I think that she knows that people will always be people. That’s how she came to write such complex and believable characters to begin with.

Although she is a little concerned by how many people love Draco Malfoy, because he’s a mean little jerk.

” People have been waxing lyrical [in letters] about Draco Malfoy, and I think that’s the only time when it stopped amusing me and started almost worrying me….it is uncomfortable and unhealthy and it actually worried me a little bit, to see young girls swearing undying devotion to this really imperfect character, because there must be an element in there, that “I’d be the one who [changes him].” I mean, I understand the psychology of it, but it is pretty unhealthy. So, a couple of times I have written back, possibly quite sharply, saying [Laughter], “You want to rethink your priorities here.” –JK Rowling, 2005

…But then, that’s a whole other post.

Overthinking: Why America Should Be Insulted By The Scholastic Editions of Harry Potter

I participate in several Harry Potter fan groups on Facebook.

I probably shouldn’t, because when I see questions such as “who cast the doe by the lake in Deathly Hallows???” they fill me with the need to apply my head to my desk. I can’t seem to quit them, though, because very occasionally they do provide me with fresh insight on the series.sorcerors stone

One of the biggest revelations I have had is the degree to which Americans have been insulated from the original text as JK Rowling wrote them. They are so accustomed to their Americanized versions that they don’t even realize how much their experience differs from that of the rest of the globe.

Most people do know that Scholastic altered the name of the first book, and insisted on changing some of the more “British” words, such as jumper, bogey, pudding, and so on to their American equivalents (sweater, booger, dessert).

Rowling allowed it at the time because they were offering her a lot of money. She had no way of knowing that her books were going to explode in popularity or that she would become one of the world’s most powerful authors.

To be honest, I wish I hadn’t agreed now, but it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy…

– JK Rowling to BBC, March 12 2001

What most people don’t know is that the changes are not all minor alterations in syntax. Entire sentences are sometimes added or altered.

For example, Dean Thomas is explicitly described as “a Black boy, even taller than Ron”.

In Chamber of Secrets, the line changes from

A second later, Harry spotted something that made him hit Ron over the hand with his pruning shears.

to

A second later, Harry spotted something. Several large spiders were scuttling over the ground on the other side of the glass, moving in an unnaturally straight line a though taking the shortest route to a prearranged meeting. Harry hit Ron over the hand with his pruning shears.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, the American edition deletes Sirius’s vault number (711) and  Sybill Trelawny’s name is spelled differently: strange things like that.

(For an exhaustive list, look here.)

Not all of the changes are bad. For example, I hear that the US editions employ the Oxford comma, which I wholeheartedly applaud. Some of the changes are corrections that later turned up in British editions, too. Others are for esthetic purposes – a line describing Hagrid’s hand writing is deleted, and the note from Hagrid is actually written in a messy font, which is pretty cool.

But other changes are more questionable – I hear that the the US editions abuse the semicolon more often then the UK versions. And some changes can actually subtly alter the meaning of the text.

Look a this scene from Half Blood Prince:

‘Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. What is more, I can send members of the Order to your mother tonight to hide her likewise. Your father is safe at the moment in Azkaban…when the time comes, we can protect him too… come over to the right side, Draco…you are not a killer…’

Now here is the American version:

“He cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. What is more, I can send members of the Order to your mother tonight to hide her likewise. Nobody would be surprised that you had died in your attempt to kill me — forgive me, but Lord Voldemort probably expects it. Nor would the Death Eaters be surprised that we had captured and killed your mother — it is what they would do themselves, after all. Your father is safe at the moment in Azkaban…when the time comes, we can protect him too. Come over to the right side, Draco…you are not a killer…”

In the British version, Dumbledore speaks slowly, with many ellipses. He promises Draco safety for himself and his family and tells Draco that he is not a killer. In the American version, he speaks more briskly, and offers to help Draco and his mother by faking their deaths, claiming that nobody would be surprised that the Order of the Phoenix had captured and killed someone’s mother.

…Really?

Personally I would have been really surprised if the Order of the Phoenix had captured and killed someone’s mother. I would also have been surprised if Dumbledore killed a student who tried to kill him. After all, Dumbledore escaped the Miniser for Magic and his Aurors without even breaking a sweat. He wouldn’t need to kill a teenage wizard and he certainly wouldn’t want to. It seems strange that in the American edition, this willingness to kill is “expected”.

In some ways, the Scholastic editions are great books. They are much more decorative than the Bloomsbury/Raincoast editions, with fancy fonts and illustrations. Americans seem particularly attached to the three stars on the corners of the chapter pages, which many Harry Potter fans have used as tattoos. harry potter stars

But those stars make me sad because they tell me how very attached Americans are to their weird, bastardized versions of the books. It makes me wonder how much they realize that their editions are mocked by the rest of the English speaking world.

You see, America was the only country that got altered text. The rest of the English speaking world has the original UK versions, where Dumbledore isn’t “expected” to kill Draco Malfoy and where Sirius Black dies on page 711… the same number as his bank vault.

Nor do many Americans seem to realize how insulting this is.

When it is brought up, many of them make the argument that young American children wouldn’t understand all those “foreign” words like car-park, pudding, jumper, dust bin, motorbike, lolly, toilet, football, dressing gown, and shan’t.

Just today an American said to me,

Experts in children’s literature know exactly how many “foreign” or unknown words children at the intended age can handle. So they couldn’t have the whole book say “jumper” because it would be too difficult for a roughly 10/11 year old American to successfully decipher.

-American on Facebook

Well, that’s funny, because just to the north of the USA there is a country called Canada.

While Canadians tend to use British spelling for words like colour, centre, and theatre, the lexicon is basically the same as American English.

In Canada, children hear “parking lot”, not “car park”. They play soccer, not football. They eat dessert, not pudding, wear bath robes instead of dressing gowns and they dream of riding motorcycles, not motorbikes. Canadian children watch American programming, not British programming, and get Scholastic book orders just like American children.

And yet Canadian children received the UK versions ofthe book, along with every other country, and Harry Potter was just as explosively popular here as down south in the good old US of A.

This leads to three possible conclusions:

  1. Scholastic underestimated the intelligence and linguistic flexibility of American children, assuming that they would be so confused by words like “motorbike” that they would be unable to enjoy the story… but Canadian children prove that this would not have been the case.
  2. American children are in some way genuinely less able linguists than Canadian children and would really have been put off of the books or seriously confused by British teminology, unable to figure things out from context the way Canadian children could.
  3. American children are so culturally insulated that they would have had a xenophobic reaction to the language, and felt unable to like or enjoy a book that said “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”, or in which characters who did well in school came out “top of their year” instead of “had the best grades”.hermione gif

Now, let’s think about this.

The xenophobia idea, while somewhat believable to non-Americans based on America’s reputation, seems very unlikely. After all, the movies were enormously popular in the USA, despite retaining all of the British language altered in the books, with the exception of the name of the Philosopher’s Stone.

The “less able linguists” thing also seems unlikely since I didn’t an outpouring of American confusion over Weasley jumpers based on the movie. But it is possible that American children can draw things from context in a visual/audio format but not from written text.

Either way, let’s go back to a claim I saw made by the same American who insisted that the Harry Potter books are “too hard” for American children.

It is not taking a shot at American intelligence. It was mostly a marketing decision made by the people at Scholastic whose job it is to sell books to American children.

-The same American on Facebook

I don’t see how the above sentence could possibly be true.

Either Scholastic made the correct decision, in which case either point number 2 or 3 is correct and American children are genuinely less able to adapt to new language than their Canadian peers, or Scholastic made the wrong decision and underestimated American children.

Either way, Scholastic rightly or wrongly took a shot at American intelligence.

Personally, I want to give Americans credit. In fact, I have no reason not to: American and Canada have the same literacy rate, and American book lists (including Scholastic book orders!) still contain British authors such as Roald Dahl and CS Lewis. If anything, I think Roald Dahl translates poorly in North America because a lot of his rhymes just don’t work in a North American accent (he rhymes what with lot, for example).

I have no reason to believe that the average American child is less capable than the average Canadian child, or less exposed to British words than Canadian children.

Which means that Americans should be insulted by Scholastic’s decision.

If you are American and would like to get your hand on the “real” books, consider Ebay, a trip to Canada, or get an account with Canadian or UK Amazon and pay shipping… and you have my sincere condolences.

I’m sorry that Scholastic thought that you were stupid.