Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Illustrated Edition — I’ve had a lot of medical appointments lately, and spent a shit-ton of money on co-pays, and, I believe in response to that, my medical insurance company offered me a $50 gift card. I had my choice from among a surprisingly large number of businesses, but I didn’t need to look any farther down the list than Amazon.com, of course. Very happily I grabbed a couple of items off my wish lists, including this book.

My first thought, when I opened the package, was, How the crap are they going to keep this up? Because, while CoS and PS are manageably short, even just PoA starts in on a pattern of books that quickly become waaay too long to illustrate this extensively. However, I will enjoy what I have!

This volume, like the previous, is marvelously thorough. From the compellingly green and detailed Hogwarts greenhouse on the inner covers/flyleaves at the beginning and end to the textures behind the text on every single page to the running (pun!) theme of spiders traversing the entire book, there is not a moment flipping through this that is dull or empty. It must have required some significant thought and planning in addition to the work that went into the actual illustrations.

As in the previous illustrated edition, artist Jim Kay draws Harry extremely well. He not only looks twelve years old, he’s someone you just want to hug and feed a better meal than he’s getting on the first page where you see him. He’s adorable and lovable and true to the text.

In fact everyone looks very much as they should. Dudley’s small eyes and Dobby’s huge ones, Draco’s pointed chin, Ron’s long nose, Hermione’s uncontrollable hair, Myrtle’s acne, and a ridiculously smarmy-looking Lockhart that, I believe, took more than a little inspiration from Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of him in the movie — it’s all spot-on. In fact my only complaint about character appearance — aside from the fact that I can’t literally hug Harry for real — is (and this hearkens back to the previous book) that the artist missed the opportunity to make Hermione a character of color.

The full-page and sometimes two-page illustrations free of any text are what really make this book special. Harry joyfully waving a Gryffindor scarf out the window of a flying Anglia surrounded by birds, or an almost menacingly red and orange exterior shot of the Burrow (just across from a sleeping Scabbers on the opposite page for maximum foreshadowing effect!), or a delightfully trippy technicolor imagining of a pajama-clad Harry getting sucked into Tom Riddle’s diary, combine to remind me of instances as a child when an adult, reading a book to me, would carefully turn it around to allow me to see a particular illustration that really added something to the prose. It’s kinda, if you’ll excuse what I really don’t intend as a pun, magical to turn the page and see something like that.

And the adorable spiders march on through and around the story, eventually leading to two pages of SPIDER CHAOS sure to make the Rons among the readers faint dead away. Then the text turns white on a mostly black background featuring just a hint of snakeskin texturing up until the grand finale, which is, of course, dramatically illustrated. Truly a remarkably well formatted book!

Of course I don’t do much reading with my eyes, and this is the bastardized American edition, so it’s not likely to be very often that I pull this book out and look through it. However, that will give these illustrations and all these spiders (including the Most Gorgeous Spider In The World on the title page) all the more impact when I do. This is an excellent addition to the collection of any Harry Potter lover, and I highly recommend it.

Xscape by Michael Jackson — This was another item on my wish list (my very extensive “Albums” wish list), and one that, unusually, instead of being unaware of and buying years after its release as is my wont, I’ve actually been eyeing ever since it came out (and then bought years after its release).

Now, of course, there’s no such thing as a Michael Jackson album I don’t like, but this one was a matter of question before I listened to it on account of its being entirely composed of previously unreleased tracks. And the vocals in particular really have that sound — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does add an interesting overall feel to the album that wouldn’t otherwise be present. In a lot of cases I can’t help wondering why some of these songs were unreleased, especially (seemingly) for so long. It seems like Michael spent a lot of his unfortunate life recording demos of songs he would then never return to. Why? Because he was crazy? I dunno.

I like most of the “Original Versions” better than the album versions or whatever you want to call them; the latter sometimes sound like they’re trying too hard, as if someone added a bunch of extra crap to try to make up for the unreleased-track-sounding vocals (which didn’t really require any compensation). This particularly applies to A Place With No Name and Slave To The Rhythm, but not so much to Love Never Felt So Good whose album version is so deliciously 70’s.

I feel like MJ has an inordinate number of songs about how much he wants to have sex with whomever the song’s narration is addressing. It’s probably not actually all that many, but it strikes me enough to make it seem like a lot — particularly when contrasted with his other pattern of vaguely charitable ideas especially toward children.

Anyway, I think my favorite track is A Place With No Name (Original Version). I would include Slave To The Rhythm (Original Version) as another favorite if it weren’t SO FUCKING SAD. Anyway it’s a great album.

Toto XIV by Toto — Here’s the last wish list item my medical insurers provided me with. Toto is one of my all-time favorite bands, and it always impresses me that they’ve been releasing albums for longer than I’ve been alive (even if sometimes, in their later career, you do get nine-year gaps in between).

Anyway, certain aspects of their music have never been abandoned over the long years, and that’s wonderful. Even as they evolve, some things about them remain set in stone — and those are typically the things I love best: a rich, full, rounded sound that was common to a lot of popular music from the 80’s and a mixture of jazzy blues and rock that’s very compelling to me specifically.

I think my favorites on this CD are 21st Century Blues and Unknown Soldier, but the whole thing is just a big feel-good revelry in that lovely old Toto sound for me.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot — So obviously everyone in the vet field is expected to have “read Herriot” (and despite the fact that a lot of people in the vet field are as far from readers as anyone I can think of, practically everyone does seem to have read these books), and I’m finally getting around to it after five years of having them recommended to me.

The cover image I’ve been using (selected arbitrarily from among several options) says on it, “The warm and joyful memoirs of the world’s most beloved animal doctor,” and, though ‘joyful’ isn’t really the word I would use for this book, ‘warm’ absolutely is. I don’t know how embellished or true to life these accounts are, but the main character (the author) as presented is so delightfully, lovably, warmly human as to make an immediate friend out of me (though I do wish he was willing to explain himself a little more frequently).

It helps that the audiobook narrator, Christopher Timothy, seems to have been born to read this book and might, in fact, be channeling the spirit of Mr. Herriot in order to perform his work so ideally and flawlessly. It also helps that James goes through so many experiences that hit so very close to home.

I did wonder at first whether the veterinary terminology, which I’ve had little trouble understanding despite not living in 1930’s England or being in large animal (see, I do remember some things from school), might not be off-putting to readers outside the vet field… but I can’t imagine it would be. Because, though minute details about rumina and milk letdown might blur together for some people, the aforementioned experiences James describes hit close to my home not because I’m a veterinary technician but because I’ve worked with customers ever in my life… so anyone else that’s done so is sure to have no problems. There are moments of almost wincingly intense empathy evoked by these stories, and it’s rarely the animals causing that reaction in the reader XD

Normally there’s little that sends me 180° as quickly (or makes me groan out loud in a movie theater where trailers are playing and there’s no escape) as the phrase “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events.” True stories are not artistic, real events do not align themselves or work out to optimal effect, and I am remarkably uninterested in non-fiction. However, for a series of brief anecdotes like this is, I’m willing to make an exception. It gets tedious after a while (so it’s good I don’t plan to read the books all in a row), but for now the feeling that these stories are to some extent true is not bothering me.

There’s even a certain unusual interest to them based on the very reason I tend to dislike “real events” in literature: because reality is not artistic, it’s difficult for the mind’s eye to look accurately ahead in any given scene. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for a scene to resolve in the most disastrous or the funniest possible way… and when things simply resolve naturally, without reference to what would make the most artistic sense, it eases the tension of expectation in a completely different way than I’m used to. Which actually gets kindof annoying, but, once again, in small doses I can accept this more realistic form of storytelling.

This does not, of course, mean artistic criticism doesn’t apply.

No matter how accurate or embellished the anecdotes are, the author still chose which to include, which to skip, and which to emphasize, so there can be some artistic arrangement and pacing to the overall work. And I can’t figure out why he chose to give us so many examples of Siegfried’s forgetfulness/inconsistency/hypocrisy. Siegfried’s everyday behavior and then perhaps one specific instance in which no details not geared toward this characterization stood out as interesting would have been enough to establish this trait perfectly well; the rest of these instances are superfluous frustration for the reader.

It kinda strays intro territory I sincerely dislike in any work, something I call the Catalog of Abuse: a main character is continually mistreated in some way by another or others, and the number of examples given of this behavior is far greater than necessary for any purpose other than making the reader feel sorry for the main character — and even that happens long before the end of the Catalog. It’s something I’ve seen mostly in Victorian literature and any book anywhere in which a boarding school is involved, but few genres or eras are free of it entirely.

It’s aggravating and depressing to read about, and occasionally the point of it all turns out to be the supposed satisfaction of watching the main character eventually take revenge on those that wronged them… but I’m not a big fan of revenge either, so even if that purpose is finally assigned to the Catalog, I still don’t like it. When it’s more purposeless — when the lengthy list of unpleasant and unfair circumstances contributes nothing beyond a certain point reached very early on — it makes for some of my least favorite types of story.

In All Creatures Great and Small it’s not as bad as it could be, since Siegfried isn’t deliberately abusive (though the inclusion of the second Grier scene exacerbates the issue), but the results on James’s end are about the same. It makes me feel sick and ineffectual, and that’s not something I’m terribly pleased at being made to feel during ‘warm and joyful memoirs.’ Still, it’s really a minor complaint, for all the words I’ve spent describing it.

Another minor complaint is the manner in which this book (and the following ones, I notice) were published over here. What is it with U.S. publishers making some dumbass arbitrary decision such as ‘This is too short for solo publication’ or ‘Kids won’t want to read a book they think is about philosophy’ and dumbassedly meddling so as to decrease the artistic value of the work? It makes me frothing angry.

I didn’t realize that All Creatures Great and Small is a compilation of two shorter works (whose individual lengths would have been perfect for my attention span, by the way, especially given the based-on-a-true-story thing mentioned above) until I reached chapter 30-some and found Herriot beginning to autobody shop. You should have seen me freaking out as he reintroduced characters I’d not only been getting to know for thirty chapters but that I’d just read about in the previous chapter. Autobody shopping is fucking annoying enough in further installments in a series; right in the middle of the very first book is really going too far!!

Of course I looked it up and realized I’d gotten into It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, which, naturally, had not been edited in any way whatsoever before being tacked onto the end of If Only They Could Talk. Fucking dumbass U.S. publishers. I honestly think I’ll divide the thing in half at that point for future reads.

I have to admit, though, I like the compilation titles better. They’re catchy and memorable, unlike his original choices. The one major drawback to them is having that damn song stuck in my head all day.