31 January 2013

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Readalong: Part Deux

Well thank goodness this book is behind us and we can move on to the BEST BOOK IN THE SERIES. Not that I feel strongly about it or anything. No, the second half of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets vastly improves on the first half, but frankly that's setting the bar pretty low. All of the excitement in the book happens here: the dueling club! the polyjuice! the diary that appears and then mysteriously disappears! Hagrid suspected of monstrous things! and then the *actual* chamber itself.

Here we go then: some of the things that struck me as terrific or puzzling or just plain incorrect...

Chapter Eleven, p. 187.  I get that Harry and Ron need to distract Snape so that Hermione can steal the boomslang and whatnot (ugh, that almost sounds like a dirty euphemism!), but really? A firecracker tossed into somebody's potion, that could have exploded and maimed/injured/killed their classmates?  That seems seriously misguided. It makes me realize, however, that Snape must have the antidote on hand for every single class: potions can be a seriously dangerous class. Far moreso than any other core curriculum.

Chapter 11, p. 190.  Dueling club, where Harry learns his signature spell.  How ironic that it's Snape who teaches Harry the expelliarmus. Harry uses it throughout the rest of the book, and of course we know when it becomes important later. But the first time I read this book it didn't occur to me that mostly Harry just tried to disarm his opponents. 

Chapter 11, p. 191: Snape's usage of student names interests me: Gryffindor boys are referred to only by their surnames, but Slytherin boys & girls AND Gryffindor girls get the honorifics of "Mr." and "Miss" added to their surnames. But then two pages later refers to Potter and Malfoy, not Potter and Mr. Malfoy.  Just curious to me. But I LOVE Snape's and Lockhart's interactions.

Chapter 11, p. 193. OMG. Lockhart's wand is a little overexcited. And his fangirls everywhere let out a magical squee.

Chapter 11, p. 196. If any other founder had been able to talk to snakes it would have been a badass trait.  But because it was Salazar Slytherin it's merely bad.  Puh-leeze.

Chapter 11, p. 200.  Ernie McMillan claims he can trace his family "back through nine generations of witches and warlocks." Why not witches and wizards?  Why not a school for warlockery instead of wizardry? Misprint?

Chapter Twelve, p. 214. Ron asks Harry, "Have you ever heard of a plan where so many things could go wrong?" Uh, yeah.  It's called Camping for Horcruxes, my friend. You'll hear of it in a few years.

Chapter 12, ongoing: It's pretty amazing that Hermione was able to make the polyjuice potion correctly. But it really bugs me that she wasn't able to go into the Slytherin common room with them to learn more.  And why the heck is Malfoy staying at school over Christmas?  Just last year he was making snarky comments about Ron and Harry's being at school over the break. Malfoy really pisses me off in this scene, but I have to say it reads fairly unrealistically to me. Malfoy is not a pleasant child, but I find it difficult to believe that he truly wants his classmates petrified and/or killed and that he would like to help out whomever is doing it.

Basically I couldn't find any relevant images, so I'm just going to insert ones I like at random.
Chapter Thirteen, p. 234. I love how Sprout knows that the mandrakes are nearly ready since they're "becoming moody and secretive, meaning they were fast leaving childhood."

Moving on. Blah, blah--Hagrid has a monster--big surprise.  Blah, blah, follow the spiders, because when did Hagrid ever give bad advice? Aragog is mostly just a bland derivative of Shelob, but with a better name. My real quibble with this chapter is why Hagrid was put in prison without a trial. Why not just look at his pensieve memories? Dumbledore is stripped of his position at the same time they come to take Hagrid away, which apparently means that without school duties tying him up, he had nothing better to do than sit on his ass all day watching Vampire Diaries reruns and pining for Damon because he's a handsome & devilish rogue like Grindelwald. Ahem.

Or instead, he could have put that formidable power and intelligence to some good use, like keeping Hagrid out of prison. But apparently Dumbles was less interested in the mental health of his gamekeeper than watching muggle tv. Or whatever. I admit that might be a bit of extra-textal extrapolation.

Chapter Sixteen, page 288. Harry and Ron lie to Professor McGonagall about why they're unaccompanied by another teacher and say they're on their way to see Hermione: "We haven't seen her in ages," they claim.  But why not?  She's their best friend. Why haven't they visited her in the hospital wing? You know damned sure that Hermione would visit them if the roles were reversed.

Chapter 16, p. 295.  Harry and Ron don't seem to be able to recognize sarcasm for the first (and last/only) time in the series. You'd think that growing up with/being in the same House as Fred & George would make both of them pros with the whole sarcasm thing. McGonagall has finally gotten Lockhart out of the way so she and the heads of houses can get some shit done, and Ron and Harry overhear the entire conversation, but they don't pick up on it?  Better yet, they went to the staff room to find a teacher to let them know about the basilisk, but once all of the teachers arrive, they somehow think it's better to hide under the cloak and not inform them?  That makes me want to do this:

Chapter 16, p. 301. Harry is sliding down a large pipe underground and yet is able to see things flash by, and then all of them are deposited at the bottom, beneath the dungeons and the lake. So where, pray tell, is this wonderful light source, allowing them to see before casting lumos?

Chapter Seventeen, p. 311. Tom Riddle talks about Hagrid "trying to raise werewolf cubs under his bed," etc. Ummm...that's another logic fail.  Werewolves are human for 27 days out of the month. Hogwarts is pretty lax about rules and everything, but I'm pretty sure that Hagrid didn't have a box of human babies under his bed

Okay, I've been mostly snarky and/or petty so far, but here's something for real that has had me thinking for years and to which I will be paying a lot of attention to during this readalong: the four orphaned (mostly literally, but in one case, figuratively) half-blood boys in these books: Rubeus Hagrid, Tom Riddle, Severus Snape, Harry Potter. Two Gryffindors, two Slytherins.  So much rides on them, their choices, and their actions. Before DH was published in 2007, there was an essay making its rounds on the interwebs about the alchemy of the Harry Potter books and how it could be used to make predictions about the last book--and many of them turned out to be right. I'm not sure if this is the same essay as the one I read back then, but this link will take you to one if you have lots of spare time and want to read more.

Back to the regularly-scheduled snark...

Chapter Eighteen, p. 327. GrandPre's illustration of the Gryffindor sword on the chapter heading page is markedly different from the one on the cover of the book.  Honestly, wasn't anybody editing these books for continuity?

Chapter 18, p. 333: look at Dumbledore dancing around the whole Harry-is-a-horcrux-and-oh-yeah-there's-a-prophecy-I'll-tell-you-about-in-a-few-years issue.

Chapter 18, p. 338. Lucius Malfoy: "'You'll meet the same sticky end as your parents one of these days, Harry Potter,' he said softly. 'They were meddlesome fools, too.'" Tell me--does anybody outside of a Scooby Doo villain use the phrase "meddlesome fools?"

But okay, Dobby finally gets some of his own back against the Malfoy family and it's pretty satisfying, despite my general exasperation with Dobby in the first half of the book. Sidebar: does it actually look like Malfoy is about to say Avada Kedavra? Also, do you think Lucius got the idea of stowing his wand in his cane from watching an episode of "Pimp My Wand"?

Who else is excited about moving on to PoA?  Lupin and Sirius and Crookshanks, oh my!

29 January 2013

Book (P)Review: Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

How I feel about Jill McCorkle and her book
I do not understand why Jill McCorkle doesn't have more of a national readership.  She's admired and read widely in the South but most of my Yankee friends, co-workers, and customers have never read her. Personally, I think she is a national treasure AND her latest novel makes me want to hug her.  I love it.

I think it's swell when my feelings towards a book are so simple and uncomplicated that I can use that simple declarative: I love it. I also love Algonquin, McCorkle's long-time publisher, for their cozy packaging and brilliant marketing campaigns.  I can't think of another publisher, large or small, deeper pockets or not, that does a better job supporting their authors.

NB: Basically this post will be one big lovefest. So consider yourself forewarned and forearmed and whatnot. (Aside: "forearmed" is a strange word, no? Wouldn't anybody who possesses a full, and thus lower, arm be "forearmed?")

Life After Life is set in the small town of Fulton, North Carolina, and more particularly within the microcosm of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement community where most of the characters live, work, or visit. Which means that Jill McCorkle has written the first book I've read this year that features the final frontier of reading -- older people. I've said it before, but I think it bears repeating: it's easier to find a good piece of fiction written about a bi-racial, gay, born-again Zoroastrian fundamentalist (or insert problem set of your choice) than it is to find good fiction written about the over-70 set. While I'm pleased that large sections of the populace once deemed as "other" by the average reader are now well represented in contemporary fiction, I'm puzzled why we don't have more portrayals of septua- or octogenarians when, if luck and health are on our side, we will all cross over that nebulous boundary into senior citizenship.

But I digress.  What I love about novels set in small towns is the ridiculous diversity they can provide. I don't say this very often, but I entirely side with Mrs. Bennet over Mr. Darcy on that point. In Life After Life, the reader meets: Abby, the heartbreaking little girl who, caught between her own unpopularity at school and her parents' fighting at home, chooses to spend her time amongst the gentler souls at Pine Haven; Stanley, the desperate man who pretends to dementia after his wife dies in order to release his younger son from the responsibility of taking care of him; Sadie, the former teacher and now Pine Haven resident who believes that the secret to unlocking your own happiness lies in communicating with your inner third-grader; Rachel, the Yankee who moves south after her husband dies so she can be amidst the surroundings of her one great love, only to discover that her lover was not the man she had built him up to be; CJ, the young mother trying to make ends meet as the cosmetologist to the seniors; and Joanna, who makes amends for her early life's bad decisions by dedicating the second half of her life to hospice care, ensuring that nobody in town need die alone.

McCorkle offers a hodge-podge of styles to carry the story forward. Many of them are third person narratives that flit about from one character to another, but she also employs excerpts from the notebooks Joanna keeps about each of the people she has sat with at the end of their lives, interspersed with a few first person narratives that reflect the state of mind of those dying individuals. It's true that because of these narrative jumps the novel felt a little disjointed to me at first, but once I became adjusted to their rhythm I reluctantly had to admit they served the story quite well.

One of McCorkle's greatest strengths is her ability to simultaneously show that while there really is nothing new under the sun, people (even those whom you think you know well) have an endless capacity to surprise. She gives warmth and sparkle, wit and dignity to her characters and embraces them wholly, despite, or perhaps even because of, their flaws. In short, she plumbs the depths of the human heart with compassion and precision.

Here are some random passages that I marked as I read; I include them to give you a flavor of her writing.

p. 124: "Marge is negative about everything, her doughy face permanently etched in a frown, every suggestion and thought negated unless it involved her relationship with Jesus, who to hear her tell it, thinks she walks on water."

p. 104:  Regarding some people's notion on the segregation of heaven (not racially, but according to levels of worthiness): "'Well," Mrs Silverman said, "I think that if there is a heaven, then it has to be a socialist society; otherwise it wouldn't be heaven but just more of the kind of unjust hell you're always describing.' No on, not even Mr. Stone, said anything after that and Abby decided she would try to use everything she learned from watching Mrs. Silverman -- hands on hips, one eyebrow raisesd, little words like if made to sound big and powerful."

pp. 57-58: "Some have many hands reaching from the bedside and others have none, and yet in that final moment, the air heavy and laden as molecules regroup and reshape in preparation for the exit, it is all the same. It is like the moment when a snake enters the yard and the birds go silent. The silence begs your attention; it's time to go. The journey is over."

Sadie, musing on her final days, p. 306: "She always wanted some days of the week underwear, but that seemed so extravagant, especially for someone who was married and taught school. But then she got Lynnette some and Lynnette never wore the right day at the right time, but that was okay. Lynnette was a child who hears that different drummer and Sadie is proud of the fact that she never tried to change what the child was hearing but instead encouraged her to do her best and be happy. IN the middle of a dark night she liked to plant her open palm on Horace's back and draw in the heat and the she would move her hand in slow steady circles. He will call soon. He always calls and she is always right ready to answer."

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book provided by the publisher, Algonquin.  They will published Life After Life on March 26, 2013. I may also post again about this book after the Winter Institute dinner, where McCorkle will be one of the stars.

25 January 2013

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Readlong Part One

It's the first installment of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in the Harry Potter Readalong, hosted by Awesome Alice over at Reading Rambo (note: she doesn't go by that name, but it's how I think of her, so if you don't already follow her blog, you should do so now. Unless you just don't appreciate things like humor, Wilkie Collins, book reviews, opera, secret lesbian relationships, or nonsequiturs. In which case I'm not sure how I feel about your reading my blog. Go away.)

CoS is my least favorite book in the series, so I might as well put that out there.  I don't love PS/SS, but at least it does provide our introduction to this wonderful world of witches & wizards. CoS is a slower read and filled with characters who are like salt in a dessert: a judicial amount of it makes the dessert amazing but use it heavy-handedly, it is no longer dessert; it is a disaster. I'm looking at you, Dobby and Gilderoy Lockhart. But more about them when they actually appear...

Chapter One, p. 10: If people were at all thinking that the Dursleys, while not pleasant, weren't outright abusive, this should put them firmly in the other camp. Petunia "aimed a heavy blow at his [Harry's] head with a soapy frying pan."

Chapter Two: all of it.  Here is Dobby.  It's true that I come to care for Dobby over the course of the series. I regularly cry in Book Seven (YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN). But for this book he is the Jar-Jar Binks of the book.  That is, a loathsome and pathetic creature inserted into this world for the express purpose of annoying me. I think Harry feels the same way at first, too:

Chapter Three, p. 32. Molly is described as looking like a saber-toothed tiger.  Just a little foreshadowing of her moment of glory in book 7.

Chapter 3, p. 33.  CAPS-LOCK Molly is upset because she didn't know where her boys were and they might have been dead somewhere.  Ummm, I guess she forgot to look at her clock, which tells her where all of her family are at any given time?  Or at least tells her that they're not in Mortal Peril? This is just annoying.  But because Harry hasn't seen the clock yet, and Harry is our filter, she can't look in it to learn that her children are alive, just up to mischief. Whatevs.

Chapter 3, p. 39. I rather like Arthur Weasley, but he is kind of a shabby excuse for a parent when it comes to discipline or standing up to his wife. If he had more backbone, Molly would come across as less of a harpy. I think he's a good role model for his children, in that he's kind and curious and hard-working and good-hearted and pro-muggle, but he breaks as many wizarding rules as Lucius Malfoy and doesn't see that he should be held to the same laws as everyone else.  Granted, Arthur just wants to tinker with muggle stuff and Lucius is up to nefarious things, BUT the laws are there for everybody. He should work to change the laws, not just blithely break them with no thought to the consequences. But how can you not love this:

Chapter Four, pp. 49-52. Harry lands in Nocturne Knockturn Alley and sees artifacts that will later chance the course of the series: the withered Hand of Glory, the opal necklace, and the vanishing cabinet. It's lucky that he read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when he was a child, where he learned it is very silly to completely shut oneself in a wardrobe, or else the Vanishing Cabinet would have sent him somewhere.  Whew.

Draco really is an asswipe in this book, but with a father like that, who can blame him?  And it's not like Lucius is berating Draco for not doing well in school, which I'd be fine with (with a nod to Sarah at Sarah Says Read).  It's that he's not first in his class over that mudblood Granger, which is a thoroughly different point.  Maybe I've been reading too much fanfiction, but Draco is really, really smart in the books and could possibly have been top in the class if it weren't for Hermione.  He *did* say he wouldn't mind being in Ravenclaw after all; he earned an Outstanding on his potions O.W.L.s; and he was clever enough to identify and repair the Vanishing Cabinets in HBP. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN. Ron feels downtrodden because his brothers overshadow him, but even without older siblings, Draco will never live up to his father's expectations.

Chapter 4, p. 63. Lucius's eyes are "glittering with malice" when he slips the diary in Ginny's book bag. What I want to know is this: how much does Lucius know about the diary?  Does he realize it's a horcrux?  He must know something--because later Draco knows that "Enemies of the Heir" means Enemies of the Heir of Slytherin. And later in GoF we learn that Voldemort had previously told his Death Eaters that he had taken steps toward immortality.  But I somehow think that if Lucius knew he was unleashing a little bit of Voldie's soul, not to mention unleashing a basilisk in the same school where his only son was a student, he might have done something else.

Chapter Five: Oh. My. God. These boys do the stupidest things when Hermione isn't there to stop them.  How can they *possibly* think that stealing the car and flying it to Hogwarts would be a good idea?  And can a train not change direction significantly enough in 30 MINUTES that they can just dip down from the clouds and find it?  That's not just stupid, it's STOOPID.

Chapter 5, p. 81. JKR must be having us on, because Snape "looked as though Christmas had been canceled," when we all know he was the one who wanted to cancel it in the first place:

Ugh, this is taking too long. I'm spending WAY more time searching for GIFs than I am writing this here post. Moving on...because this book is ultimately skimmable...

Gilderoy Lockhart, blah, blah, blah.

If that damned basilisk is so hungry, why doesn't it ever stick around to kill somebody and eat it?  Terribly unlucky for it that everything just gets petrified instead. Blah, blah, blah.

For JKR's convenience, Hermione cannot recall where she read about the Chamber of Secrets. This, despite her annoyingly photographic memory over the course of the entire series. I bought it when Harry couldn't remember where he'd read about  Nicholas Flamel, but here I call shenanigans on the author:

Ginny is upset about Mrs. Norris's being petrified because she likes cats--yup, that's why she's upset all right. Blah, blah, blah.

Harry is stupid and doesn't the truth to an adult about hearing voices because not trusting adults is a trope in this series, blah, blah, blah.

I'm waiting for the second half of this book because the first half leaves me feeling like Doppelganger Willow from Buffy:
Bored Now...Whomp!
How 'bout y'all?

24 January 2013

Book (P)Review: Severed Heads, Broken Hearts by Robyn Schneider

Okay, I admit it.  I was first drawn to this book for the title.  And then I learned that the author would be attending Winter Institute 8, an indie bookseller convention in Kansas City, MO (or is that KS?),  in February, so when the advance reading copy finally landed at the store, I made a dive for it that looked a little like this:

In fact, I'm not sure that my coworkers were at all prepared for that little bit of athleticism, which is probably why I prevailed victoriously over them.  Either that, or I said something like, "Hey, I'd like to read that one.  Are y'all cool if I take it home with me?"  Definitely one or the other.  I'll leave it to you to suss out which scenario was more real. (The former. For sure.)

Anyway, so, back to the book. I'm not sure that I can improve on the publisher-provided summary on GoodReads: "Golden boy Ezra Faulkner believes everyone has a tragedy waiting for them—a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen. His particular tragedy waited until he was primed to lose it all: in one spectacular night, a reckless driver shatters Ezra’s knee, his athletic career, and his social life."

Aside from the hopelessly hipster names (Ezra Faulkner? Cassidy Thorpe? Puh-leeze) that made it hard for me to take this book seriously, I mostly did enjoy it--a high school novel where the dialogue is, refreshingly, not too brilliantly snarky to be believed.  The book starts off with a bang--almost literally--as our first person narrator, Ezra, recounts the time when he and his friend Toby rode on Thunder Mountain Railway at Disneyland when they were twelve. When one of the foreign tourists in the front of the carriage stands up during the ride and gets decapitated, it's Toby's bad luck to catch the severed head, thus scarring him for life junior high. Therefore Ezra must drop him as a friend in order to retain his cool factor.

Most of the rest of the book is spent developing Phase II of their friendship. Once Ezra's physical effects from the car accident are made known, he's not comfortable palling around with his jock clique any longer, thank goodness.  Because clearly Toby, the debate team captain and gamer extraordinaire, is far more an interesting character for the reader. Meanwhile, Ezra is busy falling in love with the new girl, Cassidy Thorpe, who is (natch) intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, privileged, and a little wistful.  They do debate club together and play in the park and generally fall in love. They're all set to go to the homecoming dance when Cassidy blows Ezra off. But why?

Remember that part when I said Cassidy was mysterious?  Turns out, she's Hiding Things.  Things that just build and build and build and build while Ezra is simply trying to figure out up from down. The catch is that the Big Reveal comes after a novel's length of build up, so that when the reader finally gets to it, it's a little like this:

I mean, I'm expecting Death and Destruction, but there's only death and destruction, both of which the reader mostly already knew. Still, the writing is better than average (the grammar is actually much higher than average, and that always scores points for me) and generally funny, which I find is often the case in books featuring nerdish folks who aren't popular but aren't outcasts, either. I guess in some ways the characters reminded me of some of my friends from high school.  WAY too smart for our own good, but perhaps not quite as smart, and definitely not as sophisticated, as we thought ourselves.

Describing the preps for a debate team hotel party: "It turned out everyone's suspiciously oversized duffel bags were full of party supplies. Specifically, gin and whiskey and wine--the fancy stuff my parents drank, not the cheap beer that went into Solo cups at high-school parties. There were speakers, too, sleek expensive ones that plugged into Austin's iPod, and tonic water with lime, and little wedges of gourmet cheese, and a baguette, which I found particularly hilarious as Phoebe pulled it out of her mini-suitcase. I didn't know any sixteen-ear-olds who bought baguettes as party supplies (153). "

I think the word baguette jumps out at me now because I'm re-reading all of the Harry Potter books and I recall a friend telling me once that she had to laugh when reading the books in French, because the word "wand" was translated into "baguette," and it was hard not to snort when reading about Voldemort & Harry's dueling with baguettes. Which of course then makes me look for a funny gif about that: 

Anywho, this book will be published by Harper Collins in May of this year. In case you weren't paying attention above, I read the ARC of this book voluntarily when it randomly showed up at my bookstore. Here's what the cover of the ARC looks like: 

19 January 2013

Book Review: Benediction by Kent Haruf

I remember that I first read Kent Haruf when I was a bookseller at Lemuria and he had published Plainsong, a book that would go on to be a finalist for the National Book Award. I was so taken with his honest observations, the simple beauty of his language, and his ability to bring great dignity to characters who lead quiet lives. I loved Plainsong so much that I went back to read his previous two books, both of which are set in the same small high plains town of Holt, Colorado. (This is not a series of books, mind you. They just happen to take place in one small town.)

Thus when I heard that Haruf had a new book coming out this year, I was fairly chomping at the bit to get at it. Like his previous novels, Benediction takes Holt for its setting, and also like them, it's a slow and steady build. "Dad" Lewis is the main character, and he learns on the first page that he has cancer and that he's not long for this world. Dad is an older gentleman, hardworking and well-respected locally--if not a scion of the town, then certainly part of its backbone. He's honest and dependable, and while he has certainly been a good husband to his wife of many decades, he's less sure of the kind of father he was to his children, particularly his son. Dad's bedside recollections form much of the book, as he revisits past events that have marked him--most haunt him, but occasionally we are privy to quiet moments of joy, too.

In the meantime, other characters drift in, such as Dad's neighbor woman whose young granddaughter has come to live with her, or the new preacher in town who is in a constant struggle with his wife and son, or an elderly friend whose middle-aged daughter has moved in with her, and even Dad's two children, now adults themselves. Benediction is definitely a slow and deliberate read, but by the time you get to the hundred page mark (or so), you're so fully entrenched with the lives of these people that it's sometimes startling to realize that these are not people you know; they are not your neighbors.  But their stories seem so utterly familiar, so like your neighbors and your coworkers and the once-removed friends-of-friends.

I really do feel that Haruf has his finger on the pulse of small-town Americana: the hard work, the dreams, the aspirations, and the inevitable realization that your life is not what you thought it would become. He reveals with clinical but gentle precision the foibles of these small town folks, and he is pure genius at finding beauty in the quotidian and revealing the quiet dignity of humanity.

I am not a Christian, but I am deeply moved when, on those rare occasions, I see the true message of Christianity brought to light.  Not from those storefront Christians who are more interested in being seen in church than actually following the teachings of Christ, and certainly not from those people who sport those God-awful (pun intended) plastic bracelets proclaiming WWJD as if to indicate their membership in an elite club. In a chapter a little more than halfway through Benediction, the new preacher in town tries something new with his congregation.  Instead of kowtowing to the local sentiment regarding the war in Iraq and the 9-11 tragedy, he wants his congregation to ask themselves: really, what would Jesus do?  The preacher starts with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, and how maybe Jesus was only speaking metaphorically:
Because we all "know the satisfaction of hate. We know the sweet joy of revenge. How good it feels to get even. Oh, that was a nice idea Jesus had. That was a pretty notion, but you can't love people who do evil. It's neither sensible nor practical. It's not wise to the world to love people who do such terrible wrong...
But I want to say to you here on this hot July morning in Holt, what if Jesus wasn't kidding? What if he really did mean what he said two thousand years ago? What if he was thoroughly wise to the world and knew firsthand the cruelty and wickedness and evil and hate?...
And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: we are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we're finished you won't even know how to look for the places where they used to be...We can do all of these things to you. And more. 
But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the goodwill and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all toward creation. We'll mend your roads, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture...In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you've done: We are going to love you... (pp 140-141)"
Unfortunately the congregation interrupts the preacher before he's finished and they raise their voices in protest in hatred, most of them walking out, shaking their heads with righteous indignation.  Because apparently that's not what their version of Jesus would do. I was crying when I read those passages and I'm tearing up again now as I transcribe them, because it's that kind of shit that moves me rather deeply. No, I'm not a Christian, but then again, neither are most Christians I know.

I got a little off topic there, but seriously: just read Benediction. If you value quiet books of real substance over plot-driven novels with murders and/or love triangles (and I'm not saying these books don't have their rightful place on the same shelf--about one quarter of my book reviews fall under those headings), then you should read Kent Haruf.

NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book, provided at my own request by one of my terrific sales reps. Knopf will publish it in the US in late February 2013. 

18 January 2013

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Part Deux: Readalong!

Again, I am not at all sure why I had dismissed this book in my memory as so "eh."  Sure, there's a LOT of setting up for the series, but I raced through the book this time almost as quickly as I raced through the audio on my first experience with the story. It makes me full of feels. I didn't have quite as many dogeared pages in the second half as the first half--again, probably because I was feverishly turning the pages to get to the end. Here's what I noted:

Chapter Ten, p. 164: Harry gets his broom. As long as we (and by "we" I mean "JK Rowling") are talking about the lack of Slytherin's fairness, let's address something.  First years aren't allowed to have brooms. Unless you're a Gryffindor named Harry Potter. And since Harry didn't buy it for himself and since he doesn't have a proxy guardian in the wizarding world, somebody would have needed Harry's permission to use his money to buy his broom. Which means that a professor, either Dumbledore or McGonagall, bought Harry's broom for them. As in either the headmaster or the deputy headmistress/head of house. How is that *not* blatant favoritism? Cf: This moment with CoS when Draco gets on the team and his father buys the team new brooms and everybody gets ALL up in arms about it. The school showing favoritism to one boy over all others and flouting the rules to do it vs. a parent buying equipment for his son's entire team.

Moving on.

Chapter Ten, p. 178. McGonagall only takes five points away from Hermione for trying to go after a troll. Cf: later, catching the golden trio out of bed past curfew, she takes away 50 points each. WTF? I mean, I get that Gryffindor had to be in last place for the House Cup for JK to play her final card, but for realz? I don't think so.

Chapter Eleven, p. 183. Harry decides that it's Professor Snape who's after the stone and for the first time (but not the last) in the series, it's Hermione who is the Voice of Reason: "I know he's not very nice but he wouldn't try and steal something Dumbledore was keeping safe." That's right, Harry and Ron.  Not Nice doesn't equal Evil. Don't they know that he is the very model of the anti-hero archetype?  Everybody sing along!  (Edited to add: btw, that's a whole song filk done to the tune of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance. Why aren't you people commenting on its brilliance? It is g-d funny. Pure comic genius.)

God, don't I wish there were a gif of that? I guess this will do:

Chapter Eleven, p. 186. Okay, quidditch is awesome.  But having Lee Jordan commentate on this match is about as fair and balanced as Fox News is when discussing Obama. Enough with the blatant anti-Slytherin bias, people JKR! Later, on p. 188, McGonagall finally gets angry enough to do something about it.  She's supposed to be the fair one and it took her long enough.

Moving on.

Chapter Twelve, p. 194: This just makes me happy.  Little do the Weasley twins know that in going after Quirrell, they're actually pelting Voldie with snowballs.  Well done, boys.

Chapter Twelve, p. 201. I just love this description of the invisibility cloak: "It was strange to the touch, like water woven into the material." I'm not sure that could be bettered. And let's pause for a second to acknowledge how difficult it must have been to give this back to Harry. After all, he had two out of the three deathly hallows in his position. He must have known that it would only be a matter of time before getting the third. Just goes to show how far the man has grown.

Chapter Twelve, p. 209. Oh, I think I cried here when Harry's seeing his family in the Mirror of Erised for the first time: "He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy half terrible sadness."

Chapter Twelve, p. 214. Dumbledore wants socks for Christmas but people insist on giving him books.  Oddly enough, I want books for Christmas but people insist on giving me socks.

Chapter 16, p. 271. Here we have foreshadowing of the end of HBP. Hermione and Ron insist on helping Harry go after Snape in order to protect the stone, Harry acts surprised about their being willing to go with him. I freely admit that I choked up at this point, too.

Chapter 16, p. 283. Ahh, the great chess match.  I'm sure this will figure heavily in today's readalong.  This is Ron at his best and it's the Ron that we see less and less of as the story goes on.  It shows bravery, strategy, and knowing the importance of the endgame, both literally and figuratively.  This is the Ron who might be worthy of Hermione one day.  It makes me sad that this Ron rarely makes appearances in later books. Something I'd like to mention, that I don't think I've ever seen anybody note before, is that takes another kind of bravery for Harry and Hermione to move on after Ron falls. It goes against almost every instinct they have to remain on the board and play the game to the end, and then move on again to the next obstacle before being able to go back and fetch help.

Chapter 16, pp. 285-287. God, where to even start?  That's our girl, cool and calm, solving the logic problem. She's smart, loyal, brave, and cunning in almost equal measure, truly embodying all four Houses. And then JKR gives her one of the worst, anti-feminist lines in the entire series: "Books! And Cleverness! There are more important things -- friendship, and bravery." Um, yeah, Hermione. You've just brilliantly demonstrated your own friendship and bravery ALONG WITH your bookish cleverness.  What the problem here, girlfriend?

Chapter 17, pp. 288-297. OMG, it's Quirrell!  Yes, I admit I totally bought into the whole "Snape-is-Evil" the first time around. I was as surprised as Harry was when it turned out to be poor, stuttering Professor Quirrell. And it was *totally* brilliant for Dumbledore to enchant the Mirror here to thwart Voldie.

Chapter 17, pp. 298-300.  Harry's conversation with Dumbledore, in which Dumbledore conveniently forgets to tell Harry that Snape never would have been in danger in the first place if it weren't for James & his friends. Dumbledore has just told Harry that he might not answer his questions, but he wouldn't lie to Harry, but I think he just did: "I believe he worked so hard this year to protect you because he felt that would make him and your father even."

But later, p. 304, when Hagrid gives Harry the photo album?  Again, I have all the feels. "Harry couldn't speak, but Hagrid understood."

But, oh, this is the worse part. Page 305. The hall is decorated with Slytherin colors because they've won the House Cup (aside: why does Hufflepuff have so few points?  That doesn't make sense. I get that they're in third place, but that seems extreme.) If Dumbledore didn't want to foment the Gryffindor/Slytherin rivalry, AND if he wanted to keep what happened with the stone somewhat secret, he shouldn't have whipped the rug out from under the Slytherins.  That's just sick, you bastard. He could have easily given Gryffindor those points the day before.

Moving On.

Okay, I love this part: the first time Neville gets his moment of glory. Because actually I think it's harder to stand up to your friends than to stand up to your enemies, and Neville actually deserved more than 10 points. I mean, come on--look at that planking! I adore Neville.

God, I loved this book.  There are many things I took issue with (obvs), but I loved it.  I love this world, I love these characters.

If you want to read more bloggers' thoughts about these books, please check out Alice's blog at Reading Rambo, because it was her brilliance that brought us all together.

17 January 2013

Book Review: Home is a Roof Over a Pig: An American Family's Journey in China by Aminta Arrington

Huzzah, huzzah!  The first exhortation is because I finally finished this book.  The second one is because it's the first book review I've managed to post in 2013, which has actually been a fairly difficult year so far.  I started this book months ago and it took me this long to finish it not because it wasn't interesting or because I started it and put it down again, but because I was reading it in the smallest room in the house.  Every day. Sometimes twice a day.  I needn't go into more detail than that.

I find that most memoirs fall into one of two categories: a good story told by a mediocre writer, or a mediocre story told by a good writer, and Aminta Arrington's book falls into the former category.  Home is a Roof Over a Pig is her family's story of adopting a baby girl, whom they name Grace Amelie, from China and then moving there with their three small children in an attempt to give Grace a connection to her birth country. They also want their other two children to grow up with a wider world view than the typical American child's, as well as to give Grace's siblings a chance to know Grace's homeland and create a way for all of the children to share both American and Chinese identities.

Arrington's narrative style is mostly a conversational one and it serves her story well enough, though it does verge into the land of repetition on a regular basis.  It's when she tries to be more "writerly," for lack of a better word, that the writing really sticks out, but not in a good way. The chapters are more episodic rather than a linear narrative, and occasionally she jumps forward or backward in her timelines. That's okay, though, because her story is so interesting and unusual that I'd forgive the writing great deal more.

Aminta's husband Chris decides to retire from the military, giving them both a chance to re-invent their lives.  They can choose anywhere in the world to start over, and as Chris is facile with many languages and Aminta has always been interested in international relations, they know that the US is not where they want to be.  When Chris's older sons from a previous relationship move beyond their teens and their daughter Katherine is a baby, they decide to adopt a sister for her from China. During the adoption process, Aminta unexpectedly gets pregnant again with their son, Andrew, and soon the couple have three children under the age of three.

Now that Grace is a part of their family, deciding they should pick China as the place to raise their children is the easy part. The hard part is finding job placement for two adults with three small children, but in time a regional university in Shandong province called Taishan Medical College find teaching spots for Chris and Aminta, together with a tiny two-bedroom apartment in family housing. Though there are many frustrating moments when they doubt their decision to move to rural China, overall the family adapts fairly well to their new country, with the children adjusting in varying degrees and at varying speeds.  Soon they become entrenched in their neighborhood and in their teaching and church communities.

The title of the book comes from the Chinese character for "home," which Aminta learns is esentially the pictogram for 'roof' combined with the word for "pig," and that pig-farming was one of the earliest non-nomadic occupations for the ancient Chinese.  Thus, if you had a roof over a pig, you stayed put there and it was your home.  Learning tidbits about language like this is what made the book so fascinating for me. Like most Americans, I am not fluent in any language beyond my own, despite my own interest in language, dabbling in French, Spanish, and even Latin during high school and college, and taking an introductory course to linguistics in graduate school.  I may have no facility with it, but language has always interested me; learning a bit about a language whose characters are conceptual meanings rather than based on letters that combine into phonemes to create words was endlessly fascinating.

Beyond the language lessons, I especially enjoyed Arrington's stories about the young people taking her English classes--the cultural divides that become smaller and smaller as the book goes on, such as politics or the importance of family and maintaining cultural traditions, but also those that grow even wider, such as feminism, their respective views on Tibet, and the importance of independent thinking. Learning to understand (and respect) a worldview that is radically different from your own may be difficult, but both teacher and student know that it's essential to try, even, or perhaps especially, if you do not agree with it.

I'd recommend this book for people who are casually interested in China, international adoption, travel memoirs, memoirs about parenting or teaching, or simple readers looking for an unusual perspective.

NB: This book was published in hardcover in July 2012 by Overlook Press and I read an advance reading copy of it provided by my sales rep.

11 January 2013

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: READALONG!

Oh, where to start?  Alice at Reading Rambo is the readalong hostess-with-the-mostest. It is where the fun lives. All of it.  She had the brilliant idea of having us all read Harry Potter together and so here we are, discussing the first half of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It has been a long time since I've done a close reading of the first book, so I've got dog-ears out the wazoo in my new book, purchased for the express purpose of this here readalong.  I think this was the only volume I didn't own in English, though I've got Spanish language editions of the first three and various English-language editions for all of the others, usually multiple ones.

So I'm just going to go in page order from all of my little dogears.  Some of these are praises, some of these are WTFs, some of them are merely comments. But I will just say this: revisiting the first half of this book, which was my least favorite of the series and the ones I've read fewest times, was really fun.  None of the tedium that I remembered from my first reading, which just goes to show how deeply I love these characters.

With apologies to those of you who've not read these books yet, because ahead there be spoilers.

Chapter 1, p. 3. I don't know where Little Whinging is, but it's at least two hours from London (cf p. 90, where it takes them 2.5 hours to get to King's Cross from #4 Privet Drive), so Grunnings cannot be in London.  And the wizarding population is much less than 1% of Great Britain, so WHERE ARE ALL THE WIZARDING FOLK COMING FROM whom Vernon encounters on his way to work?  This is inconsistent with the wizarding world, yet Rowling starts us off that way.  WTF?

pp. 13, 17. This is one of the rare chapters with a strict 3rd person omniscient POV--that is, lacking the subsequent Harry filter that colors everything else that the reader encounters in the books. Dumbledore is wrong for the first time in the series when he claims that Harry will be "famous for something he won't even remember." And then makes one of the biggest gambles/mistakes of his life leaving Harry with those Dursleys.  I mean come on--leaving Harry with the Dursleys, for starters, whose treatment of Harry qualifies as child abuse, and then just leaving him on the doorstep with a letter, not even waiting around to see they get him.  Harry is just over a year old at this point--he could have waken up and crawled out of that basket. Or the milkman could have wandered by and stolen him.  What kind of idiot would leave him there like that?

Chapter 2, p. 22. Mrs. Figg's house smells of cabbage.  cf: with the smell of the tent at World Cup in Goblet of Fire. I spent a lot of time in book four trying to draw a link between Mrs. Figg and the tent owner, and even more at the end of that book when Dumbledore tells the Weasleys to gather up the members of the Order and ARABELLA FIGG is one of them. OMG.

p. 27. The snake somehow knows that Harry is a Parselmouth even before Harry speaks.  What's up with that?  I can't decide if that's an inconsistency or not. But I love this scene.

Then Hagrid shows up and tells Harry something very important:

Chapter 4, p. 57. Hagrid talks about Voldemort with an insight I don't usually associate with that character.  Is this an original thought or is he parroting Dumbledore?  Either way, it struck me, not least because I love the word codswallop: "Some say he died. Codswallop in my opinion. Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die."

Also, it hurts my heart a little that when Hagrid looks at him "with warmth and respect blazing in his eyes," and Harry feels like there's been a horrible mistake.  That poor, poor boy.

p. 59  There's no way that Hagrid, who was never great shakes at magic anyway, would have been able to turn Dudley into a pig with only a Year 3 education, a full two years before sitting for his OWLs.  True, he couldn't succeed, but I doubt even Hermione as a third year would have attempted a human transfiguration. Textual inconsistency.

Chapter 5, p. 70. In what may be the greatest mystery and/or inaccuracy in the book, Harry feels no reaction when he meets Professor Quirrell.  No turban is mentioned here despite lengthy exposition about it later in the book, though it must have been present to cover up his, erm, living accessory. And since the vault at Gringott's is broken in that same day or the next, the living accessory MUST be present.  So why no reaction?  If it's only to be a red herring later in the book, that's a pretty poor reason.

p. 75. I never paid attention before, but why doesn't the wizarding world use a base-ten system for their  currency? 1: 17: 29. Sounds like Rowling wanted to use prime numbers for her galleon: sickle: knut system, but from a numerical point of view it just doesn't make any sense at all.

p. 80 And here we have our first example of blatant anti-Slytherin bias: Hagrid telling Harry that there wasn't a witch or a wizard who went bad who wasn't in Slytherin.  Hagrid conveniently forgets that one of the Golden Gryffindor Marauders themselves was a Death Eater and betrayed Harry's parents. It's interesting, because it's quite clear over the course of the series that Hagrid has a good deal of respect for Professor Snape, so it's a tiny bit surprising to me that he tars all Slytherins with the same brush.

Not that dancing Snape cares what Hagrid thinks...
p. 81. WTF? Hagrid, lover of all animals, especially the yucky, ugly, creepy, or dangerous ones, doesn't like cats? Because they make him sneeze?  This is so laughably out of character for him that I have to wonder what Rowling was thinking.  She could have just had Hagrid buy Harry an owl with no further explanation.

p. 84 cf Harry "feeling foolish" waving his wand at Ollivander's with Professor Snape's intro to potions with the promise of no foolish wand waving. Also, measuring between Harry's nostrils to fit him for a wand? Priceless.

Chapter 7, p. 118. The second instance of blatant anti-Slytherin bias" the sorting hat, which I remind you belonged to Godric Gryffindor. Gryffindors = brave, daring, chivalrous. Hufflepuff = hardworking, just, loyal. Ravenclaw = wise, full of wit and learning. Slytherin = Macchiavellian?!? WTF? Just sayin'.

p. 123. I love Dumbledore. A few words, indeed.

But on to one of the best parts of the book:

Chapter 8, pp. 136-137. Despite student rumors to the contrary, I have never really thought that Professor Snape wanted to teach anything but potions.  Listen to the poetry and passion that intro: "subtle science and exact art of potion making" "I don't expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimming fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses." You don't even need Alan Rickman reading these lines to make them swoon-worthy.  No, I don't believe Snap wanted DADA over Potions.

Of course that doesn't keep him from being an asshole.

Chapter 9, p. 148. Since when are Pansy Parkinson and Parvati Patil on a first name basis?  Is this a slip on Rowling's part, or does this hint that both are old wizarding families who knew each other well pre-Hogwarts?  I am surprised that that line hasn't spawned more fanfiction.

p. 160. Here is the first in a long line when Hermione saves Harry's and Ron's asses, this time with a quick Alohomora. Of course she leads them into trouble for the first time, too.  I love this scene.

p. 162 Immediately afterward, Hermione is the only one observant enough to look past Fluffy to see what he's standing on and deduce that he must be guarding something.  Clever girl.

So for fun I went and took the Pirate Monkeys Harry Potter Meyers-Briggs test again.  When I was in high school I tested ENTP, which turns out to be Sirius Black.  But when I took it just now I was INTJ, which is Severus Snape.  Take it.  Let me know what your profile is, 'k?

NB: My very first GIFs I found here and here. They are most decidedly not my work. 

05 January 2013

Harry Potter Readalong: Post the First

I'm a day late (and more than a few dollars short) for the Harry Potter Readalong introductory post. Alice over at Reading Rambo is sponsoring it and it's going to be the readalong against which all future ones will be measured and found lacking.  If you don't already know her blog, please check it out, posthaste. Anyhoo, we're going to be reading the entire series and blogging about it every Friday for the next several ones.

So...Harry Potter.  When Harry Potter and the Sorceror's-not-Philosopher's-because-American-audiences-won't-read-a-book-about-philosophy Stone was published in the US, I was the average age of the readalongers currently participating. Which makes me comparatively ancient to the rest of y'all, but I also think it gave my first reading of the series a different slant because I was not a child when first encountering it.  I was a bookseller, so I knew about the books as they were published, but the first two times I tried to read HPSS, I couldn't get past the first few chapters. Didn't care for the story or the writing or the characters.  'Tevs. (I cared so little that I couldn't even be bothered to use the duosyllabic "whatevs.")  But basically that means that I never made it past Privet Drive, so of course I didn't like it. Nobody told me to keep reading until the bizarrely dressed giant showed up.  So that's my advice for the two people doing the readalong who've not already read HP: keep reading until the bizarrely dressed giant shows up.

Over time, though, enough people whose reading taste I respected kept urging me to give it another try, so I bought the audio version and listened to it in my car. As a captive audience, I was still tempted to turn off the first tape (ha! it wasn't even on CD), but Jim Dale's narration held my attention where the prose did not. When I arrived home at the end of the book, right when Harry finds his way to the Stone and finds the "wrong" professor there, I sat in the driveway for a moment to finish it, but then decided to turn around immediately to drive to the closest bookstore to purchase Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. 

Books I-IV had been published at the time I started reading HPSS, so I had a breathless and manic few days reading them all. It was at that time that I discovered the joys of Harry Potter fanfiction, and I read it pretty intensely to fill in the lonely time before Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released. I loved the series so much, and my then-fiancee loved me so much that he pre-ordered a copy from Scholastic to be Fed-Exed to me on Saturday, June 21, 2003 to the island of Antigua.  We got married there, you see, and I came very close to changing our wedding plans when I learned that the release date of the HPOP coincided with our wedding. You don't want to know what it costs to overnight a book from the US to a small island in the West Indies for a Saturday delivery.

I've since read books 3-7 probably in the neighborhood of 10-15 times each, and I've listened to all of the books on audio multiple times, too.  I know these books.  They are familiar to me in a way that sometimes my own family is not. Whenever I am currently reading or listening to the books, the stories haunt my dreams and my waking moments. I recognized the vanishing cabinet and I knew who R. A. B. was before I turned the page. I never doubted Severus Snape since the end of book one, when I realized what little fools that Harry and I both were. Believe me when I say that I have all the feels.

I've seen the film franchise, and I think they're just fine. Not amazing. Not awful.  Just fine. I think that books (and films) I and II are the weakest in the series and that's why I've read (and watched) them far fewer times than the other books.

I've read so much fanfiction that I've begun to conflate canon with fanon, and I'm okay with that.  Rowling has created a world so engrossing that I want to keep living in it, but I take serious issue with many things that she does over the course of the series (most of them having to do with her portrayal of 25% of the wizarding population), so in many cases I actually prefer the fanon to the canon.

I am a self-identified SlytherClaw who was sorted into Slytherin at Pottermore, but I probably admire the house of Hufflepuff more than any other. I am a staunch defender of Severus Snape;  I have little love for the Marauders, with the exception of grown Lupin in books 3-6; I think Minerva McGonagall and Luna Lovegood are extraordinary creations;  I love Hermione, as I think she is one of the most interesting and fully drawn characters in the series, but I'm amazed that most people tend to gloss over her ruthlessness--of all of the characters, I think she fairly equally embodies traits of all four houses; I think Bellatrix Lestrange and Dolores Umbridge are the true villains of the series, moreso than Voldemort; I find myself drawn to the twins for the humor and creativity,yet repelled by their bullying. I think Neville is hug-worthy and Ginny is a Mary Sue.

I reckon that's probably enough to be going on with, at least for now.