Friday, March 29, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Readalong 2: "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?"

We're halfway through Order of the Phoenix, and I'm dying to tell you all these things that are in no way relevant to the plot:

Harry uses sarcasm correctly at last ("Wow, I wonder what it'd be like to have a difficult life?" GOOD ONE, HARRY); Snape assigns an essay on moonstones, making him an honorary (if fictional) member of the Wilkie Collins Fan Club; Snape says the word abysmal, causing me to fan myself dramatically; Dean Thomas misuses a mouse ("Dean Thomas, if you do that to the mouse again I shall put you in detention." WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO THAT MOUSE, DEAN THOMAS?); Harry should unhand small magical creatures before talking business ("Harry had gripped the bowtruckle so hard that it had almost snapped." "Harry looked down; he was indeed squeezing his bullfrog so tightly its eyes were popping."); Umbridge succeeds where others have failed in making me sympathize with Trelawney; and I decide that, no, there is nothing WORSE than a self-satisfied smile.


So you know how we all kind of resent Cho Chang for breathing, because we know that Harry is supposed to be with Ginny? WELL, I have an idea for viewing this situation in a way that may spare poor Cho the weight of our collective and misplaced wrath. Let's think of these three as Superman characters, can we? So if Harry is Clark Kent/Superman, that would make Ginny his Lois Lane and Cho his Lana Lang. Lana is just his high school sweetheart, a perfectly lovely girl who cannot in any way compare to Lois Lane . . . because Lois is a proper pain in the ass and just what Clark needs. So what I'm saying is, we should all let Cho have her moment before Ginny sweeps in and captures Harry with her no-nonsense attitude and skillful Bat-Bogey Hex.

"If I say no, can I still kiss you on the mouth?"

TELL me this isn't the most convoluted sentence structure.
When the bell echoed distantly over the grounds Harry rolled up his bloodstained bowtruckle picture and marched off to Herbology with his hand wrapped in a handkerchief of Hermione's and Malfoy's derisive laughter still ringing in his ears. (pp. 260-261)
You can't. Because it is, in fact, the worst sentence ever constructed. It took me three reads to realize that we weren't dealing with a handkerchief literally composed of Hermione's and Malfoy's derisive laughter, and I don't appreciate that, Rowling's Editor.

Harry's angst has been manageable so far, in my opinion. And one rant I found particularly helpful was his enthusiastic effort to convince Ron and Hermione that he's really NOT all that and a bag of chips. He emphasized that his many triumphs over evil thus far were accomplished only with the help of others and a great deal of luck. And I quite appreciate this effort to share the credit, because he HAS had a boatload of help every step of the way. Which I realize is the point. So I'm glad he ALSO realizes that. So yeah.

But Harry really needs to watch his mouth with Umbridge, for serious . . . and also for Sirius. He's starting to remind me more and more of a certain plaid-wearing bad boy in a certain '80s movie.

Never you mind my lifelong attraction to John Bender.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Readalong 1: Luna is not perturbed

We're a quarter of the way into Order of the Phoenix, and SO MUCH is happening already.

Dudley has friends (?); Harry continues to take Hedwig for granted (dude, at least let her eat her frog in peace); Moody advises against stowing one's wand in one's back pocket due to the possibility of blowing off one's butt cheek (which makes me think of all the times Harry tucked his wand in his FRONT waste band . . . HE-llo); someone finally hints at the fact that Ginny is kind of a bad ass ("Yeah, size is no guarantee of power. Look at Ginny."); Ron bites the heads off chocolate frogs RIGHT in front of Trevor (rude, Ron, really rude); the Sorting Hat proves that Hufflepuff is officially the only House without a superiority complex; and Rowling secretly wishes she were named Nymphadora.

No one is surprised, you dirty bird.

We get to see a lot more of Mrs. Weasley in this part, which is fantastic. But she's stuck with the job of Den Mother to all these unruly witches and wizards, in addition to caring for the actual children and cleaning the Noble House of Black. She puts on a brave face, but the cracks start to show when Sirius wants to involve Harry in the doings of the Order of the Phoenix. And just in case that wasn't clue enough of her distressed mental state, the Boggart cleared up any remaining confusion by posing as one dead loved one after another and reducing Mrs. Weasley to a sobbing, ineffectual-against-a-Boggart mess. What a dick move, Boggart.

ALSO kind of a dick? Kreacher. He's gone completely batty after years of isolation in that awful house, his only company the unpleasant portrait of Mistress Black and the mounted heads of his fellow house-elves. But lest you feel anything akin to sympathy for him,
Kreacher fixed him with a watery stare and said, "Master must do as Master wishes," before turning away and muttering very loudly, "but Master will not turn Kreacher away, no, because Kreacher knows what they are up to, oh yes, he is plotting against the Dark Lord, yes, with these Mudbloods and traitors and scum. . . ." (p. 118)

Also, Kreacher was caught snogging his dead master's trousers. That seemed important to mention.

I know everyone will probably be talking about Luna and Umbridge this week. I can't REALLY talk about Umbridge because I stopped reading right before her big chapter, but I am interested to know how one wears a cardigan sweater OVER a robe.

And as for Luna, well . . . I'm just so glad she's finally here and WHY HAVEN'T WE BEEN FRIENDS WITH HER SINCE SECOND YEAR? Now I can finally get going on this Neville/Luna ship.

Anchors aweigh!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Sparrow: "We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark...and we're wearing sunglasses"

What we have here is essentially a first-contact story, set in the not-so-distant future. It being the future, the first contact in question is with an alien civilization on . . . *consults book* Rakhat. The mission to Rakhat is primarily scientific, but as it is funded and organized by the Society of Jesus, it is also religiously motivated. And somewhat hastily and privately planned. As the Prologue helpfully explains,
The United Nations required years to come to a decision that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days. . . . In Rome, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send.
The Society asked leave of no temporal government. It acted on its own principles, with its own assets, on Papal authority. . . .
The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. (p. 3) 

And who DID the Society send on this fateful mission?
  1. The super-celibate and kind-of-attractive Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, an expert at picking up foreign languages
  2. Jimmy Quinn, a 28-year-old obscenely tall scientist who eats just everything and was the first to discover Rakhat (because of a picked-up radio transmission that turned out to be aliens singing alien-y songs)
  3. George and Anne Edwards, a 60-something husband-and-wife duo whom it’s impossible to dislike because dammit they’re awesome (oh yeah, and Anne’s a really good doctor, which I suppose is important)
  4. Sofia Mendes, an enigmatic indentured servant with a spotted past and unnaturally sharp mind (and also kind of a babe, obvs)
  5. Marc Robichaux, a French naturalist and watercolorist
  6. Alan Pace, whom I forgot about completely and can’t remember anything about even now that I remember he existed (*hours later* oh YEAH . . . Alan was a musicologist, which is why he wanted to go to Rakhat in the first place. Good job remembering essential plot points, Me.)
  7. D. W. Yarbrough, a grizzled old Texan Jesuit (New Orleans Provincial of the Society of Jesus to you) with a whip-smart sense of humor, and leader of this here space rodeo

Where the story picks up, it’s been about 40 Earth years since the team set off for Rakhat. But there’s a timey-wimey thing that happens, so the crew doesn’t age very much at all. The important thing is that the author makes space travel near light speed inside a hollowed-out asteroid sound like something that could happen.

The narrative alternates between the present day (2059) and the mission itself (starting in 2019), from hopeful beginning to unfortunate end. And we have some idea right away that things went terribly wrong on Rakhat because present-day Sandoz is the sole survivor of the mission and is being held for questioning for heinous acts he committed on the alien planet. The thing is, the Jesuits know WHAT he did (they actually knew YEARS before he returned to Earth because of that timey-wimey thing); they just can’t make sense of WHY. And he’s physically and emotionally just a gigantic mess; so it takes a while (the whole book, in fact) for him to come out with the entire chronicle of events. And it's no bedtime story for the kiddies.

The real strength of the book, for me, is the characterization. You get a clear sense of who these people are, who they were, and what they come to mean to each other. Which serves nicely to intensify the horror of it all when the proverbial Rakhat poo hits the Earth fan.

The characters also help reinforce some major themes. Because the group is a pretty even mixture of unbelievers and those who have devoted their lives to their belief, they have some heavy conversations about religion. For example, THIS one, with Marc being the talker (Marc happens to be one of the Jesuits on the mission, with the bonus characteristics of being both French AND a silver fox):
"It is the human condition to ask questions like Anne’s last night [I can’t tell you about Anne’s question, but it’s something along the lines of, “Why would God let this happen?”] and to receive no plain answers,” he said. “Perhaps this is because we can’t understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God’s ways and God’s thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable."
But he goes on to say, and this is important, I think:
"The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God." (p. 201)

God isn't picky about dance partners.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Harry Potter and the Readalong of Fire 4: All twinkling suspended until further notice

After a month of letting Goblet of Fire toy with my fragile emotions, it’s finally come to a crashing halt. This week, Harry learned that Neville’s parents were tortured to the point of insanity, but he couldn’t be bothered to give Neville a kindly pat at the breakfast table; Bertha Jorkins proved herself to be the world’s loneliest witch when she agreed to a romantic moonlight stroll with Wormtail; a sizable group of adults stood by while a 14-year-old boy was tortured; dementors continued to be a terrible idea; Hermione walked around with a kidnapped Rita Skeeter Beetle in a jar in her purse like it was no big; and Sirius turned a doorknob with his PAW.

Even with opposable thumbs, no simple feat.

I know Voldemort is serious business, with the murdering and the torturing and the ability to smell people's guilt despite his complete lack of a proper nose. But I can’t seem to take him seriously. Especially after this:
The thing Wormtail had been carrying had the shape of a crouched human child, except that Harry had never seen anything less like a child. It was hairless and scaly-looking, a dark, raw, reddish black. Its arms and legs were thin and feeble. . . . 
The thing seemed almost helpless; it raised its thin arms, put them around Wormtail’s neck, and Wormtail lifted it. (pp. 640–541)
I need upsies.

Dumbledore, on the other hand, I’m suddenly taking QUITE seriously. His congenial twinkle has been replaced by “cold fury,” and he’s radiating power like burning heat. He’s a contradiction of temperatures. DO NOT MESS WITH HIM.

But I’m really interested to know why Dumbledore looked briefly triumphant when Harry recounted how Voldemort was able to touch Harry’s face without hurting himself. I’m assuming this is an Easter egg and I shall be rewarded later for my keen observation.

RIGHT, Rowling?

And I don’t know what you’ve heard, but this did not, by any means, make me tear up in the Laundromat:
Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory. (p. 724)

Can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Attachments: SURPRISE I LOVED IT (no one is surprised)

In case you were wondering, writing about a book that all my favorite book-type friends loved long before I did and that I ALSO loved when I finally got around to reading it is HARD. I’m tempted just to say YES IT IS FANTASTIC, pop in a Jennifer Lawrence GIF, and have an ice cream.

But here’s why you're not looking at J-Law making a saucy face right now: YES, everyone has read and loved this book, but did we all love it for the same reasons? Mostly, probably . . . yes. But the first note I scribbled down when I was reading was about the journalism aspect. Because the characters all work at a newspaper, and I was like I CAN IDENTIFY. And we were best friends from that day forward.

That first noteworthy thing for me was this:
Regardless, TV journalists don’t count; cute is their job. There’s no reason to look pretty in print journalism. Readers don’t care if you’re cute. (p. 77)
To which I exclaimed, “Oh HELLO, truthy statement about print vs. broadcast journalism. THE WAR WAGES ON.”

And we have HER on our side, so good LUCK to you.

When I was in journalism school, our classes were in the same building as the broadcast journalism classes, and sometimes we ended up in the hallway at the same time waiting for our classes to open . . . and the contrast was remarkable, let me tell you. Exhausted budding alcoholics with rings under their eyes on the right, freshly spackled smoothie-drinking folks on the left. I’m generalizing, but I'm probably drunk right now so what do I know.

Oh did you want to know what this book is about? WELL. Jennifer is a Features copy editor and Beth is a movie reviewer at The Courier, a small Midwestern paper. It’s 1999, and the paper has just entered the digital age, with Internet access for reporters and internal e-mail. Because Internet equals PORN, this advancement necessitates the presence of a person whose job it is to monitor Internet use and employee e-mails for abuses of the privilege. Enter Lincoln, a 28-year-old complacent sort who lives with his mother. The thing is, Beth and Jennifer misuse the HELL out of the internal e-mail, and their messages keep getting filtered into Lincoln’s folder of suspicious e-mails. So he reads them. And then he keeps reading them. And he can't bring himself to issue them a warning. Because he's starting to like them. And maybe even love one of them.

Like You've Got Mail...but only one person's got mail.

The format goes back and forth from Lincoln’s narrative to e-mails between Beth and Jennifer, and in this tidy way, the plot progresses. It’s charming and light but still makes you feel some real-life feels.

I identified so fully with Beth and Jennifer that I sometimes had to remind myself which was which when I was reading their back-and-forths (until Jennifer said she didn’t care about Batman; that was a rocky point in our relationship).

And Lincoln. He’s that quietly spectacular sort of man that we all HOPE we deserve. This was the precise moment when I loved him, talking to a girl at a noisy club:
“Well, you came here to meet somebody, right? To meet a guy?” 
“To maybe meet the guy, right?” 
She looked down at her drink. “Right.” 
“Well, when you think about that guy—who, by the way, we both know isn’t me—when you think about meeting him, do you think about meeting him in a place like this? In a place this ugly? This loud? Do you want him to smell like J├Ągermeister and cigarettes? Do you want your first dance to be to a song about strippers?” (p. 52)

Only if SHE'S there.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Harry Potter and the Readalong of Fire 3: Do these dress robes make my butt look big?

We're three-fourths of the way through Goblet of Fire, and this is what's happening: Winky's role model is Mammy from Gone With the Wind ("I is looking after the Crouches all my life, and my mother is doing it before me, and my grandmother is doing it before her . . ."); Hagrid is feeding dragon liver to the Blast-Ended Skrewts (I think it's safe to say we've all underestimated the availability of dragon parts; heartstrings for everyone!); Fleur worries about gaining weight and not fitting into her dress robes (they are ROBES, Fleur); McGonagall's idea of dressing up is superior to everyone else's (Tartan is the fanciest of all the patterns); at the Yule Ball, Karkaroff is looking at Krum the way Ron is looking at Hermione (I see this as somewhat of a problem); and Moody is using his magical eye to look through Harry's robes (ALSO A PROBLEM).

Let's talk about families.

I know we're supposed to be indignant over the superb stinginess of the Dursleys in sending Harry a single tissue for Christmas this year, but I continue to be impressed when they send him ANYTHING. I mean, he's out of sight, out of mind for a WHOLE year. And yet, around Christmas, they think of him at least long enough to send him something from the bottom of Aunt Petunia's purse. And they might even have to use some sort of magical conveyance to get it to him at Hogwarts, which you KNOW they hate. So I choose to see this glass as half full . . . of terrible relatives.

In a shocking fairly unsurprising bit of news, we learn Hagrid is half-giant. But I'm struggling to make sense of how this whole human/giant relationship worked between his mom and dad, and I want ANSWERS, Rowling. Where did they meet? Was it a whirlwind love affair? Why did she leave when Hagrid was 3? How did they . . . um? How would they . . . ? Because pure giants are about 20 feet tall and, well . . .
"Tiny little bloke, my dad was. By the time I was six I could lift him up an' put him on top o' the dresser if he annoyed me." (p. 428)
He's gonna get back to us when he works it out.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Harry Potter and the Readalong of Fire 2: What if we're ALL teenage girls?

We’re halfway through Goblet of Fire, and here’s what’s happening: Hermione is stepping up her game on the “free-the-house-elves” front, everyone continues not to care sufficiently about Neville, the owls need a PETA representative, Hermione wants to mouth-kiss cannot abide by Krum, Ron and Harry are acting like mean girls, Sirius is saying things seriously and Snape is snapping, Bagman is acting MORE suspicious, wizard journalists do not learn ethics in Wizard Journalism School, and wands continue to be so very dirty (“I polish it every night”; “rather thicker than one usually sees . . . quite rigid”).

I'm so sorry, Mom.

On the topic of house-elves, Ron so sincerely believes that they like to be enslaved, and Hagrid repeats that same belief later. To that I say, of COURSE the house-elves like being enslaved. I'm thoroughly convinced. When was the last time I heard that argument . . . OH YEAH.

Your wizard logic is faulty.

And I suppose the owls ALSO enjoy their life of hard labor? (Oh, they do, you say? Very well then.) Harry is pretty hard on Hedwig. She flies for days and who (owl humor) knows how far to get a letter to Sirius, and then the very next morning, Harry makes her fly out again to deliver a stupid letter that is stupid. You SHOW him your tail feathers, girl. He doesn’t even deserve you.

Oh, that reminds me. I have a bone to pick with Rowling about the owls. So Hedwig can find Sirius in his most secret of secret headquarters. Acceptable. Hedwig is a very special owl, even as far as magical owls go. But then Harry is able to grab just a random school owl to send a letter to Sirius, and this owl will ALSO be able to find him without any difficulty. So, I ask you, what’s stopping the Ministry of Magic from just . . . sending Sirius an owl? And then when the owl got to his hidden location to deliver the “message,” the message would be “SURPRISE! DEMENTOR'S KISS. Love, Ministry of Magic.”

I leave you with Potter and Malfoy, mean girls: