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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Thank you for the tea, Weatherby: Or Our Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

And another one down! Michelle and I have made it over the hump of the series, and the midpoint of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is now behind us! 

V: So this book was harder for me to get through, not because it was longer but because it was heavier. Did it feel heavy to you? Most talk about how "dark" the series continually gets, but I think heavy is a better word for it. There's more to deal with, more to worry about, and we've pretty much seen the last of happy-go-lucky Harry simply having fun at Hogwarts. With the Triwizard Tournament going on, we see an almost constantly worried Harry. The poor kid hardly has a moment to sit down and just be happy that he's back in the Wizarding World before he's thrown into a life-threatening tournament.  And I think part of what contributed to this feeling of nerves and almost fear throughout the book is that Harry is a bit older, he sees more, and there's more worrisome stuff going on even outside of Hogwarts in the rest of the Wizarding World, so he's started actually catching the worry on the faces of the adults, he hears the breaks in their voices, and he knows that everything isn't quite under control anymore. Of course, this means that we too see a lot more uncertainty in the adult cast, which can't mean anything good. Add in the idea that the problems and bad things aren't just happening at Hogwarts anymore but throughout the entire world, and you've got yourself an already darker and more nerve-wracking atmosphere.
In the midst of all this worry and change, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are growing up. Hermione takes up activism for house-elves, Ron and Harry have their first fight, and they all have their first crushes. Overall, life at Hogwarts gets that much more complicated and interesting. People have criticized the romance in the HP books before, saying that romance was the one thing JKR wasn't any good at writing. I know book 6 is more the central hub for this sort of argument, but what do you think about that at this early stage in Book 4? We see Ron's crush on Fleur, based almost solely on looks, and it's juxtaposed with Harry's shy crush on Cho (which seems to be based more on who she is...Quidditch player, good student, nice person...in addition to her being pretty) and Hermione's actual relationship with Krum. I think Hermione and Krum are the most interesting couple here. It only makes sense that Hermione was the first in any sort of relationship and that it was with an older guy; Hermione is the most generally mature of the group, and she's not the one who had to do the asking. Ron's anger and jealousy in the face of Hermione's relationship only serve to emphasize his own immaturity, honestly (this kind of happens to Harry too, as he starts hating Cedric for dating Cho). Harry might have been second onto the relationship train if not for Cedric Diggory. Even Ginny, though she still clearly has a crush on Harry, is more talkative and open, and we can actually see her becoming a fuller character. I don't see a problem with the development of crushes and romantic feelings. It all struck me as perfectly believable, especially in the context of characters who have a lot of other things to worry about. I think JKR has done a pretty good job of setting up budding relationships and their development through the next couple of books. Did you have any problem with the more teenager-y realness that seemed to enter this book? Do you think it could have been written better? Is there anything you found particularly off-putting about the whole thing?

M: I feel like I always describe later books as darker because the earlier books are so full of wide-eyed wonder, but heavy is a good signifier as well. Reading Goblet of Fire was great, but you do sometimes feel burdened by the weight of the story in a way that is not present in the earlier books. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the character's ages as well. Not only is the situation becoming more dire with Voldemort but, as you say, the kids are understanding more of it at the same time that their lives and relationships are getting more confusing. It's a lot to take on and I feel like that comes across very well. I'm surprised to hear that JKR is criticized for her portrayal of romantic relationships. I remember reading the books for the first time (being about the age of the characters) and not thinking anything about it - what they were going through (the petty jealousies and such) just made sense; upon reading the books a second time I'm more aware of what they are going through and just thinking to myself "oh, hormones." As a child and as an adult reader the smaller strife within the novel made sense to me and suited the overall personhood of the characters.

Victoria and I have shared quite a few of our thoughts on the Harry Potter series here on the blog, but I want to end our discussion of Book Four here to share with you guys our first podcast, Jiggery Pokery. We talked about everything from Professor Snape to Percy Jackson to the Weasleys' parenting skills, and everything in between!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Reading Group Selections - June 2014

The best books for reading groups are the ones that foster discussions - whether your book club members are boisterous or more subdued, talking about books is what those meetings are all about! Picking just the right book is always a thrill; love it or hate it - book club books are the ones that stand out.
Here are a few recent releases that would lead to great discussions in any book club

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional, Graeme Simsion's distinctive debut "navigates the choppy waters of adult relationships, both romantic and platonic, with a fresh take ("USA TODAY").
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.
The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel
As America's Mercury Seven astronauts were launched on death-defying missions, television cameras focused on the brave smiles of their young wives. Overnight, these women were transformed from military spouses into American royalty. They had tea with Jackie Kennedy, appeared on the cover of "Life" magazine, and quickly grew into fashion icons.
It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered.
A groundbreaking work as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Collywobbles: Or Our Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Another week down and another book in our Harry Potter readalong has ended. This one is particularly heart wrenching as we are introduced to Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs. Here are a few of our thoughts on Book Three... 
M: This book is frequently labelled a turning point in the series; while the first two installments are by no means all sunshine and roses, Prisoner of Azkaban lacks even the semblance of lightheartedness found within the first two books. I feel like we get traces of it in places like Hogsmead, but the specter of the dementors pervades almost ever section of the novel.
I think this might be my least favorite book in the series. I love meeting Lupin and going to Hogsmead, but some of the storytelling is a bit clunky. And really, I will never stop thinking about this - why couldn't Lupin tell Harry he was a friend of his parents? Also, McGonagall reveals that she was a teacher of theirs - why has she never taken the time to talk to Harry about them? This is an orphan child that is hungry for stories of his family. He is apparently surrounded by people who knew them...share some stories! 
V: I think it's funny that this is your least favorite book. It's my third favorite, and this one (along with maybe book 4) seems to be most people's favorite. Sirius and Lupin are such beloved characters, and people adore this book often for that reason alone. It's interesting to see how different people approach the series. 
It's funny that you mention the parent thing. I've been thinking about that too, but I think Lupin has a pretty decent reason for never discussing James in detail. Since it's well-known that James and Sirius were best friends, and Sirius is on the loose and considered by all to be a mass murderer, it wouldn't really be the most prudent thing for Lupin to discuss that he was friends with James, and therefore Sirius. I'm sure people know they were friends, but as Lupin is already distrusted among Wizard-kind, I can understand him taking the precaution of distancing himself a little from those ties to such a notorious criminal. 
As for people like McGonagall, they probably just haven't thought about it. Harry never asks about his parents (most likely a trained reflex from 11 years with the "no-questions" Dursleys), and I don't think most people realize how little he knows about them. Dumbledore is the only one who seems to recognize Harry's hunger for information, and just about every time he is able to sit and have a conversation with Harry, he tells Harry more about his parents. 
What I found interesting in this book is how it offers the barest hints of information that will become vital later in the series. For instance (without spoiling anything), we get mention of Professor Trelawney having made a previous prediction, as well as the backstory of James and co at school. We also get quite a bit of backstory on Snape, or at least the threads of it, which becomes quite important later on. Even the idea of the dementors not being entirely underMinistry  control is mentioned very briefly. The foreshadowing in Chamber of Secrets was incredibly obvious to someone who knows the end of the series, but the hints in this book are way more subtle and easier to miss. 
A couple of my favorite things about this book: 1) Lupin's constant sass. He does it politely and with a smile, and it's hilarious. 2) The Quidditch Cup. I'm really glad it took Gryffindor three books to win the Cup, because it really built up the tension for that final match against Slytherin. Especially have played and watched Muggle Quidditch, I completely understand the tension involved in the scoring before catching the snitch and everything. 3) Lee Jordan's commentary. I simply love it.
I was most bothered by Harry and Ron's quite unkind treatment of Hermione in this book. I know they're only 13, but what did you think about that??
M: At one point after discovering Lupin went to school with his father Harry says "you must have know Sirius Black as well" and Lupin replies "I thought I did." Oh, that part breaks my heart. It does seem that it would have been both difficult and dangerous for Lupin to talk about his old friends. And with Sirius escaping and having Harry thrust into his life you can imagine that the emotions he had been coping with for the last twelve years would be overwhelming. I think this is true for Snape as well...I don't want to delve too far into Snape's backstory considering we don't learn much about it until later in the series, but the resentment and despair of his entire life is personified in Harry Potter then exacerbated by the escape of Black and the position of Lupin at Hogwarts. And he still brews Lupin's much needed potion! I've said before that I am not a Snape apologist, but I am a bit more sympathetic to him this time around.
We both mentioned on Twitter just how complex this series is. The entire history is so fully realized that I cannot help but wonder how much of this world Rowling has in her head that she hasn't shared with us.
As for the trio's many bumps in the road this year I'll say this, I have two siblings (one older and one younger) and I can say from experience that with three close friends alliances build and fall constantly but the three of you are always a unit. When it matters Ron, Hermione, and Harry all come together. It makes sense for them to have falling outs once in a while. Plus, the tension between Ron and Hermione is building. They are weirded out by their attraction to one another and it comes out in their preteen state as anger sometimes.
And finally, I take your joy in Lupin's sass and raise you McGonagall throwing major shade at Trelawney. The Christmas dinner scene is fantastic.

V: Oh I certainly understand the fighting and bickering between friends who almost resemble siblings in a way. I grew up with two brothers myself (also one older and one younger...imagine that), so it's understandable that they fight. It would be unbelievable if they didn't. But Harry and particularly Ron seemed to be just mean to Hermione in this book. The poor girl has so much going on, she's stressed to the max and clearly trying to do more than she can handle (which is kind of nice to read, as it reinforces Hermione's humanity), and she really was just trying to help. They kind of abandon her at her most vulnerable point in the series so far, and Ron especially is kind of cruel about it a couple of times. I just found myself feeling really bad for Hermione and being quite angry at Harry and Ron for their poor treatment of her. I know Hermione didn't exactly start off the series with friends, but the loneliness of being friendless is completely different from the loneliness of your friends ignoring you. I feel for her.
You make an excellent point. McGonagall got some fantastic bits of snark in this one. I also love her Quidditch rivalry with Snape. It's hilarious to me that these two very dignified teachers get really caught up in Quidditch.
M: I do think Ron and Harry's treatment of Hermione is meant to be a big deal. Hagrid even talks to them about it, and frankly I love that Hermione goes to Hagrid with her troubles. He really is the most maternal character. 

I'll end out thoughts on Azkaban here with something we haven't spoken about at all - the films. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is in my opinion the best film in the series even if it isn't one of my favorite books, and as Victoria has pointed out on Tumblr it is the film in which Harry looks the most like...well, Harry! That reminds me, are you keeping up with us on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook?


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