Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Revisiting Potter, Part 6: The Half-Blood Prince

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Hey, remember back when I was on a roll re-reading all the Harry Potter books? (Yea, I barely do too.) After a long hiatus and only two left in the series, I picked back up with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, another doozy of a novel clocking in at over 600 pages.

This sixth installment opens with a terribly ominous tone. You can feel it in the air. And the first thing we see is an odd interaction between Snape and some Death Eaters, during which he makes an Unbreakable Vow to protect Draco Malfoy as he carries out his mission from Voldemort... whatever that may be.

We finally meet up with Harry when Dumbledore collects him from Privet Drive and takes him on a visit to an old friend, Horace Slughorn, with the objective of getting Slughorn on staff at Hogwarts. We learn that Slughorn is a piece of the Tom Riddle/Voldemort puzzle, and Dumbledore believes it absolutely essential to learn whatever memories Slughorn is hiding.

And that's how the rest of The Half-Blood Prince plays out. It's an increasingly difficult puzzle that we must solve. Rowling advances the story by leaps and bounds with this novel by providing essential pieces of backstory that give explanation and by establishing the plot of where Harry's story needs to go from here. I don't think any of the other books have contained so much as this one, or been as necessary to the overall story.

I remember, when reading this book for the very first time, that this was the one that blew my mind, that made me really trust Rowling as an author who has a story to tell and is telling it in a very smart, calculated way. At this point, I had no doubt that Rowling knew how she was going to end Harry's story, and she was using her pages wisely to build up to it. It's like with good television, when they're writing with an end in mind and everything matters. Because the opposite is bad television, where they've been unnecessarily renewed and suddenly have to add episodes and plot points and, as a whole, it feels neither smart nor consistent nor necessary. The whole concept of the Horcruxes just clicked so hard with me that I felt like everything Rowling had written so far had been leading up to this, and she knew how it was all going to work out, and I still had this wonderful puzzle of a plot left to enjoy.

The characters, though always growing and evolving, really mature in Half-Blood Prince. Emotions are not only heightened by the dire situation at hand, but also because we're still dealing with kids—really, adolescents—who are still figuring out themselves and their relationships with others. Rowling never lets us forget that, and in this one we see it especially through the relationships of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny. Our characters are also figuring out the world around them, and this entire plot, with Harry investigating Voldemort's past, helps him understand that many facets build a person; no person is simple, and every one is entirely human.

Note: I've been watching the movies alongside reading the books—several of them I had never actually seen—and it's doing wonders with helping me remember the details of each book--something I had previously forgotten entirely! Also, I have literally been trying to type this review for at least 2 weeks. Let's just cheer that today, on the second-to-last day of school, I finally finished it! So much more reading and writing to come! Finally!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 4

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Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Poetry, Memoir
Read If You Like...: Books with a historical setting, novels told in verse, poignant memoirs
Three-Sentence Thoughts:  This autobiography shares Woodson's experiences growing up in New York City and small-town South Carolina in the 1960s and 70s, particularly how different her experiences were in two different parts of the country still suffering remnants of segregation, each in their own way. Her descriptions conjure up feelings that everyone experiences—often the ones that are brief and pass without much consideration, but are poignant nonetheless. As a non-fan of poetry, I actually really enjoyed and appreciated the creative way Woodson shares her experiences of a pivotal moment in history with younger readers.

Title: Zombie Baseball Beatdown
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Genre: Humor, (slight) Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Absurd scenarios, comic book plots, humorously relatable characters
Three-Sentence Thoughts: It's an ordinary day of baseball practice for Rabi, Joe, and Miguel...until they nearly get eaten by Coach Cocoran, who is a jerk, yes, but flesh-eating member of the undead? The trio uncover a cover-up plot by the local evil meatpacking plant to hide the fact that their cows are turning into zombies and so is anyone who eats their meat! Bacigalupi packs a lot of important issues—food politics, immigration, racism—into this humorous story that will entertain readers with its likable characters and utter ridiculousness.

Title: The Geography of You and Me
Author: Jennifer E. Smith
Genre: Romance
Read If You Like...: Everyday stories about teen issues, novels told from alternating perspectives, emo boys who deserve more attention
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Lucy and Owen meet unexpectedly when a city-wide blackout leaves them trapped between the 10th and 11th floors of their New York City apartment. Their relationship continues to grow despite the distance that keeps pulling them apart as circumstance moves their families across land and sea. There is a romance aspect here (sometimes told in an annoyingly "affecting" kitschy way—see below), but it's more about these two characters who mature as they learn to build a life despite the obstacles thrown their way.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Fiction | The Quiet Passion of an Academic

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John Williams' Stoner has been loved and recommended by many readers whose opinions I trust. Its quiet, haunting portrait of a farm-boy-turned-academic has awed many readers with its purposeful prose, carefully revealing the everyday monotonies that define an average life.

William Stoner's life is one that begins at the end of the 19th century in Missouri. His parents are the stoic, hardened farmer type, and his upbringing was devoid of the typical small pleasures and comforts of childhood and adolescence. William enrolled in the state university on track for a degree in Agriculture to eventually take over the family farm, but his plans changed after taking one literature class, chosen simply as a way to fill his mornings.

He began to resent the time he had to spend at work on the Foote farm. Having come to his studies late, he felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.

Time in Stoner passes quietly, mirroring the life and experiences of its main character. As William's life "settles" and his choices are cemented, we get the impression that his life is one of rather disappointment. The relationship he had with his parents (though lacking by most familial standards) is strained after his entry into a marriage with a "proper" family. His career, once full of passion and for which he abandoned all previous plans, flatlines with little hope of growth. And said wife becomes an aloof and indifferent nuisance that inhibits any prospect of joy that William may find in other aspects of his life.

By the latter part of his life, William finds himself very much alone, fated to that same quiet stoicism he tried very much to avoid. The passions that led him to make impulsive decisions—to changing his life's direction, to following his heart, to making noise instead of recoiling into silent solitude—were ultimately never very rewarding. Perhaps his passion only lasted as long as his decision-making; perhaps it was the luck of the draw; or perhaps he was destined to be his parents' child, impassively accepting what life throws his way.

It takes a passionate reader to appreciate the beauty in Williams' words because they are so gently stated. Some consider it beautiful; some may find it boring. Regardless, it's a portrait of a character that must've certainly been common in a time when options were fewer and one's actions or decisions felt unbreakable, enduring.

Thank goodness times have changed.