Friday, June 21, 2013

Harry Potter Readalong: The Retrospective

It’s official, friends. I hereby join the ranks of Those Who Have Read Harry Potter. It’s a big club. But only a select few members have their own wands.

Ebony with Phoenix feather core. For threatening my enemies.

I don’t know if you realize this, but organizing a group of book bloggers who live all over the world to read the same books and then talk about them on the same day every week for 6 months running is a stupendous feat. Like herding cats? Is that the saying? And only our brave and fearless leader, Alice, our collective fondness for GIFs, and the scary-brilliant imagination of Lady JK Rowling herself could have provided the motivation to keep us all onboard. Also peer pressure (not just for making children smoke the cigarettes anymore).

As some of you may know . . . the past 6 months have been maybe the most difficult of my life. My world sort of fell apart right before Christmas, and it’s taken this long just to assemble the scaffolding to BEGIN the rebuilding process. And through all that personal journeying, I was simultaneously making my steady way onward from the cupboard under the stairs at Number 4 Privet Drive. They say you never forget your first time reading the Harry Potter series, and for me that could not be more true.


Makes your opponent's pee smell funny for DAYS.

The heat of my passion for Neville Longbottom would have been more than enough to carry me through, but I ALSO had reading partners who made me spit coffee every Friday, right on schedule. And sometimes we also cried. But we cried together. And then we looked at more pictures of post-puberty Matthew Lewis, and all was well again.

So thank you, friends, for making this first read so memorable.

To be followed by a 10-minute group hug.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eleanor & Park: Emergency circle time for discussion of my feelings

I have three other books to write things about, but Eleanor & Park is just one of those books that you have to talk about immediately . . . with anyone who will listen. This is the reason people HAVE book blogs. Because sometimes the people in your everyday life just don’t really care to hear about how tingly a school bus hand-holding scene made you feel (SUPER tingly . . . and at Sunday brunch, too).

My eggs got all cold and rubbery.

Quick summary: It’s the mid-’80s in Omaha, Nebraska. Eleanor is the new girl in school. She has unruly wine-red hair, a less-than-ideal home life, and a unique personal style that would probably be cool in a John Hughes movie but just makes her an easy target in the real world. She also has an ample figure. “At sixteen, Eleanor was already built like she ran a medieval pub” (p. 18).

Eleanor does not yet know this.

Park is probably the only Asian boy in town, but he grew up there and is well liked. He has excellent taste in comic books (if the character likes Batman, I like the character), terrible taste in friends, an insatiable appetite for new and varied music, and a pretty great home life.

Eleanor has just appeared on the bus for the first time, amid cruel jeering and a general lack of welcome from her peers. After a long, awkward walk down the bus aisle, she has reluctantly taken the only empty seat toward the back of the bus, right next to Park, who makes room for her with equal reluctance. Thus begins the story of a high school relationship, told from the alternating firsthand perspectives of Eleanor and Park.

There are two things about this book that make it universally readable, although it is technically of the young adult variety: (1) its overall ability to replicate the feeling of first love, complete with agony and ecstasy, and (2) the theme of self-perception, and how frequently off the mark it is.

At one point in the book, Eleanor and Park are in their English class and their teacher asks Park why he thinks Romeo and Juliet is still so widely read today. Park's answer is something along the lines of, "Because people want to remember what it feels like to fall in love." Even if it's all-consuming, ill-advised love. Even if it IS Big Will's commentary on the foolishness and selfishness of youth (it is). We just want to feel the butterflies.

Do you remember how popular Twilight was? Of course not. That was ages ago. But it was popular for EXACTLY this reason. As poorly written as it was, it pretty expertly captured that swept-away, can't-sleep, can't-eat, can't-bother-being-human-anymore feeling of epic, hormonal, I-need-you-now love. I remember. I was reading it on a plane, with my mom sitting next to me. And I missed my boyfriend a LOT. If you know what I mean.

Well Eleanor & Park does the same thing. But with smart writing that doesn't make you want to go back in time and prevent Stephenie Meyer from learning to read. ("No storytime for you, little girl!")

The other big excellent thing about this book is the way we learn, through the alternating perspectives, that the way Eleanor sees herself is nowhere near how Park sees her. And vice versa. If we take Eleanor's word for it, she's disgusting. Is she a flawless goddess sent from heaven above? Truly . . . no. But she's so much more beautiful than she feels on a day-to-day basis.

Yeah, so maybe this isn't news. We usually aren't the best judges of ourselves, because we can't be trusted not to judge too harshly. But at almost 28, I STILL need to be reminded of this daily. Just because I quite frequently feel like an eel in a skin suit doesn't mean that's how anyone else sees me. And did I hope that I would be done feeling this way once I was a grown-up lady? Absolutely. I counted on it. But we never grow out of our insecurities. We just deal with them the best we can. And a good book can help with that.

So if you like being visited by the butterflies and also reading words that are put together nicely and also being reminded that you're not a hideous freak, give this a go.

And if you want a smart vampire/human love story . . .

Friday, June 14, 2013

Harry Potter and the Deathly Readalong 4: "My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?"

First of all, let me just say . . . Being Sad is not my most beloved of leisure activities, and I have spent more time Being Sad in my leisure time this past week than doing anything else. AND I BLAME ALL OF YOU.

Teddy is my only friend now.

There were just a couple of times when I took a break from Being Sad to be Cautiously Amused. Like when Ginny thought she heard Ron and Hermione say something about the bathroom right before disappearing together for a prolonged period of time. (They were gathering Basilisk fangs in the Chamber of Secrets, obviously. Geez. Get your minds out of the gutter.)

Speaking of Ron and Hermione going on solo missions to remote parts of Hogwarts, the first time WE see them kiss is the first time Harry sees them kiss, which is right after Ron says a nice thing about house-elves. But I’m not entirely convinced that was their first kiss. Almost completely certain it wasn’t, actually. Or maybe it was. I just realized I’m not all that invested in this theory.

But do you know what theory I AM invested in? (Look at all my smooth segues today! I’ve just ruined them by pointing them out, haven’t I?) The good ship Potterfoy. I will go DOWN with that ship holding tight to just a couple of tidbits. I can live off tidbits for AGES.

Tidbit #1: "'Don’t kill him! DON’T KILL HIM!' Malfoy yelled at Crabbe and Goyle, who were both aiming at Harry" (pp. 631–631).

Tidbit #2: "Malfoy was screaming and holding Harry so tightly it hurt" (p. 634).

Damn. Fresh out of tidbits.

Another theory I’ve been working on (i.e., thought of just now) has to do with perhaps the only big secret Severus Snape succeeded in taking to his grave. 
"With a tingle of horror, Harry saw in the distance a huge, batlike shape flying through the darkness toward the perimeter wall." (p. 599)

Snape was Batman.

I didn’t shed actual tears at any point in this last book. (There was a LOT of lip trembling and throat tightening. I’m not a robot.) But the most emotional moments for me were the ones that continued a tiny thread from the very first book. Like when Hermione yells at Ron: "Are you a wizard, or what?" (p. 651). And when Hagrid tenderly carries through the woods what he thinks is Harry’s body . . . much like when Hagrid carried a smaller Harry to the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive. And when we see through Snape’s memories how hurt Petunia was that she wasn’t magical like her little sister—a hurt she carried into adulthood. And when Neville’s Gryffindor qualities (the ones that made it possible for him to stand up to his friends in those little-boy PJs) fully manifest in the absence of Harry, Ron, and Hermione at Hogwarts.

It’s like, in this last section, everyone’s very best qualities come out (even Kreacher’s). Which makes it all the more painful when some of these people are taken away from us.

And that means I can’t put this off any longer. It’s time for the final, and most painful . . .

1. Crabbe (burned in hellfire of his own making)
2. Fred (I refuse to talk about it.)
3. Lavender Brown (fell from a balcony; briefly savaged by Fenrir Grayback)
4. Severus Snape (received Hicky of Death from Nagini)
5. Lupin and Tonks (manner of death unknown)
6. Colin Creevey (manner of death unknown)
7. Bellatrix (cursed by badass Mama Weasley)
8. Voldemort (was his own undoing)
9. Fifty others (I'm sure they died bravely and well.)

And Draco and Harry AREN'T best friends in 19 years?!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Harry Potter and the Deathly Readalong 3: The week of ladies in particular kicking arse

This section was packed with more action than Hermione could stuff in her magical beaded purse. Fred (or maybe George?) made a funny about Snape's distaste for hair-cleaning products. Bellatrix called Dobby a "dirty little monkey," which is offensive to house elves everywhere. Harry is making all kinds of grown-up decisions and putting all his faith in Dumbledore's wisdom at last. We learned what really happened in the Dumbledore family when Albus and Aberforth were teenagers, and only SOME of it involved goats (The Hog's Head smells faintly of goats! I get it now!). All these loose ends being tied up remind me that there's only one week left in what has started to feel like the Harry Potter Readalong of NEVER-ENDING Awesomeness. I don't know whether to be relieved or despondent.

I'm about 3 to 1 on this.

Look, I hate to keep revisiting the whole "wands are penises" thing (it pains me, really it does), but after that argument with my husband I feel like I have to defend my stance a little more. And, well . . .
Wands are only as powerful as the wizards who use them. Some wizards just like to boast that theirs are bigger and better than other people's. (p. 415)
I think I can probably plant my victory flag on that one.

On a related note, I was impressed to learn that Bellatrix's wand is 12 3/4 inches and unyielding. I think that's the longest wand in the series, aside from Voldemort's. Which I think says something about her overall lady power, be it evil or otherwise. (It's evil. She's totally evil.)

And I HARDLY think that's appropriate, Bellatrix.

Also, Hermione saved everyone's mortal soul numerous times in this section. Thinking on her feet in Xenophilius Lovegood's house and Disapparating with Ron and Harry WHILE FALLING THROUGH THE FLOOR. Girl's got skills. And then she withstood prolonged torture in Malfoy Manor without telling Bellatrix anything useful or true.

Also this:
She's tough, Luna, much tougher than you'd think. She's probably teaching all the inmates about Wrackspurts and Nargles. (p. 425)
True story.

I have another question this week. When Peter Pettigrew hesitates to kill Harry for that brief moment in the basement at Malfoy Manor and his own magical hand strangles him instead . . . I don't exactly understand what happened there. Was the hand enchanted so that if he ever failed to kill Harry, he would die? Because what if he didn't kill Harry right then because he knew Voldemort wanted to kill Harry himself. That's all anyone ever says: "Don't kill Potter. The Dark Lord wants that honor for himself," blah blah, ad nauseam. So if Pettigrew HAD killed Harry right then, he would have been in capital T trouble with his boss. And that is what we in the business call a Catch-22 . . . or else a poorly written plot device, I'm sad to say.

And now, for Week 3 . . .

1. Ted Tonks (Did he know he was a grandfather? Stop it, too sad.)
2. Dirk Cresswell (I have no memory of this person and feel pretty bad about it.)
3. Gornuk the goblin (Their eyes with no whites are creepy, right?)
4. A Muggle family of five ("unnamed, but no less regretted")
5. Dobby, a free elf (I'm so sorry I called you the Jar Jar Binks of the Harry Potter series! I feel just awful about that now.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

A Visit From the Goon Squad: "We have some history together that hasn’t happened yet."

What can I even SAY about this book? That I had forgotten what a well-written book was like until I read the first five pages of this one? That I want to have entire paragraphs tattooed on my person? That it's funny and clever but still manages to make me feel the kind of profound sadness I get when I look at pictures of Earth from outer space?

Or just...I guess one word is fine, too.

Goon Squad reads like a book of highly cohesive short stories, because each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and jumps around on the book's timeline, with corresponding (often drastic) changes in voice and tone. Egan basically wears a different body for each chapter (slimy but effective). And you've probably heard of the chapter that's entirely in slideshow format? It SEEMS like that would come off a little gimmicky, but it's so far from anything resembling a gimmick. You'll see, my friends (because you're currently purchasing this from your friendly neighborhood bookseller, I trust).

None of the characters are formally introduced. You get acquainted with them organically, within the framework of their connection to a previous character. And the more you read, the more you gather about the book’s two central characters. But you’re not always aware that they ARE the central characters, because you’re learning about them in such a roundabout way. Each chapter builds on the previous one to give you an idea of who these two people are and how they came to be that way, and it’s all based on the people whom they crossed paths with or who meant something to them at some point, and then it comes full circle and is JUST lovely.

I think the magical component is that this rings so true to life. We are an amalgam of all the people we’ve known and all the places we’ve been and all the things we’ve done. And the only way to really know a person is to know ALL those things, places, and people. And it’s so overwhelming and wonderful to realize that you just can’t. You can’t know. We don’t even know ourselves that way. 


Egan’s writing is flawless. She drops a little nugget in one chapter as though it’s incidental and then brings it up several chapters later in another person’s story to powerful effect. It’s emotional but never emotionally manipulative.

It’s hard to pull out quotes for this book, because everything is seamless and interlocking. So here’s basically an entire paragraph (I’m sorry, Jennifer, if this breaks some sort of copyright law . . . you brought this on yourself):
Many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed. . . . Then he’d folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no immediate need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it inside his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both.