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Monday, July 21, 2014

Nitwit, Blubbler, Oddment, Tweak: Or Our Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Now that we've finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Victoria and I are rather emotionally exhausted. Are we ready for the Deathly Hallows? I guess we are bound to find out, but for now our thoughts on the Prince...

M: I went into this book somewhat cold. I told myself that I wasn't going to be affected by the tragedies Harry faces by the novel's end. I got closer and closer steadfast and stone faced. And then I cracked. By the time I finished I was wrung out. I just sat thinking about grief and loss and life. I took quite a bit of time for myself with this one just to process. I know you were deeply affected by Harry's' grief as well. Do you think we were struck differently this time, or we've just forgotten the pain we originally experienced nine years ago?

V: I think it's a combination of both, honestly. The fact that we're reading the books much more closely combined with the fact that it's been a while for both of us since we've read these books probably came together to add to the emotion. This whole reading experience has been quite emotional for me. I've grown even more attached to the characters this time around, and the deaths in these last two books have absolutely drained me. It happened to me like it happened to you: I was reading along without feeling but, but next thing I knew, I was sobbing. I'm a bit nervous to start Deathly Hallows, because I remember acutely how much this book affected me when I read it the first time.At the same time, I'm excited for Book 7. I've been noticing and feeling the buildup and foreshadowing to this book for pretty much the whole series. Book 7 is my absolute favorite book of all time, and I am intimately familiar with it because of how many times I've read it. So I'm anticipating an exciting and emotional end to this read-through.To get back to Half-Blood Prince, there are two very interesting things that struck me about this book. One is the backstory development of Voldemort, and the other is the progression of Harry and Dumbledore's relationship. Seeing Voldemort as a kid and a young man was particularly creepy to me this time around, and it only made him scarier to see this manipulative and handsome young man with such evil intentions. What did you think of the development of Voldemort's backstory??

M: It's interesting that you mention close reading because when we set out that was definitely what I intended to do. I didn't want to just revel in a highly entertaining book series; I wanted to read it critically, dissect it, and in that way find out why these books are the phenomenon that they are. But that didn't happen - at all (especially as we've moved further on into the series). I'm not doing a close reading of the text because I am too busy engaging with it. I know that must sound counterintuitive, if you are engaging with the work it should be simple to really think through it, but apart from the overarching themes and the things like massive foreshadowing I've just been turning pages too quickly to read in a critical way. I'm to focused on finding out what is happening to these characters that I love (even though I know what is happening because I've read their story before) to stop for a close reading. And in saying all this I realize why the series is such a phenomenon - it engages the reader on whatever level they need/desire. The books definitely stand up to critical readings (Rowling's wordplay and literary allusions alone provide fodder for all the scholarly journals of the world) but they are also what they were meant to be: seriously entertaining, engrossing books that resonated within the hearts and minds of a generation of readers.
So (now that I've gotten that out of the way), Tom Riddle. I am very interested in young Tom Riddle and I really like how Rowling shaped book six around Harry learning more about him (from "he's so like me" to "oh my god what created this monster"). It forces the reader to think about the nature of good and evil - Harry and Tom have relatively similar loveless upbringings, so what is it that gives Harry the limitless capacity to love and Tom the inability to do so? Harry was created out of love whereas Tom's existence is owed wholly to magic; thus for Harry magic is merely an entrance into a world of love, family, and friendship while for Tom magic is everything.
I really like that Tom is handsome and charismatic. It does add to the creep factor as you say but it also makes his character more believable. Tom Riddle is basically a textbook psychopath but with more magic.

V: I completely agree. I'm not reading these books near as closely as I'd planned, but I'm certainly reading them more slowly and closely than I ever have before.
Dumbledore gets a bit of character development in this book as well, though not not in the same way as Voldemort/Tom Riddle. Present Dumbledore is developed in this novel in a way that present Voldemort never can be. We see his personality toward Harry as a child/pupil (albeit his favorite pupil), but there are also some moments that he treats Harry much more like the man he's becoming. I can clearly see Dumbledore shaping and influencing here, and I don't think he's even trying to be subtle, nor do I think he's trying to be harmful or too distant from Harry. I also am certain that Harry knows all this, even if it's not consciously all the time. Seeing how their relationship progresses in this book and knowing how Harry feels about Dumbledore, the insane amount of trust Harry places in him and everything, it's going to make the crumbling of Dumbledore's pedestal all the more moving and emotional in Book 7.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Omar Reviews: Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Prior to reading it for this review, Lost at Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley sat near the top of my "Must Read" list for years. Though O’Malley has been one of my favorite comic creators for a while, I never quite brought myself to read Lost at Sea. I’m not sure if it was because I never had access to it, or if it was never the right time. But now, I have read it. And I am glad I did.

This is O’Malley’s first original work. He wrote and released it while working on what eventually became the first Scott Pilgrim book, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life. Lost at Sea is the story of four 18-year-olds traveling from California back to their homes in Canada. We experience the story from the perspective of Raleigh, a sullen young woman who claims to have no soul. As the four travel through California, enjoying their travels, Raleigh remains quiet and introspective. This isn't an adventure book; it’s a quiet book about a girl just trying to understand herself.

Lost at Sea reads very much like an 18-year-old’s journal. Normally, that would be enough to stop me from ever reading this book. When I first started, I thought I was going to have to force myself through it. Luckily, that wasn't the case. As I read, I wanted to read more (I consider this an achievement, since I won’t even read my journals from that age, much less anyone else’s journals). The sadness at times is palpable. The narration (Raleigh’s inner monologue) does a great job of making you feel the sadness that Raleigh is feeling. At times, though, I found myself wanting to shake Raleigh and tell her that her problems are childish (I wouldn't do that). But no matter what, I wanted to keep reading.

O’Malley’s writing in Lost at Sea is solid, though not what I had come to expect based on his later works. He knows how to tell a coherent story about characters that are easy to love. Lost at Sea feels much more stream of consciousness than typical graphic novels. While it works for Lost at Sea, a story very much about Raleigh’s thoughts and feelings, I’m glad that it’s a style that O’Malley veered away from in his later works. His art, however, is just as wonderful here as it is later in his career. Simplistic, yet incredibly emotive. Lost at Sea is not as action packed as the Scott Pilgrim series, but O’Malley makes great use of the panels and the pages.

The blurb on the back of the book says “If you've ever been eighteen, or confused, or both, maybe you should read this book.” That’s a fairly accurate assessment. There are a lot of people who just would not get this book. The feeling of just laying back and basking in your sadness is foreign to many people. Those of us who understand what it means to be inconsolably sad, and those that know that sometimes in order to get through sadness one must dive further into it, will grasp the full weight of Lost at Sea. Even if you can’t identify with Raleigh’s story, it’s easy to identify with her feelings.

It sounds like this is an endlessly sad book, and in many ways it can be. But not all sadness is completely sad. And sad stories such as Lost at Sea are worth the price.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Victoria Reviews: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Let me get my fangirling out of the way. I really adore both Eleanor and Park and Fangirl. Those two have permanent places on my favorites shelf, and I recommend them to just about anyone who will listen to me for half a second (speaking of which...if you haven’t read them, THEN WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! GO READ THEM). Since it’s an adult novel, I was afraid I wouldn’t love Landline the way I love the other two. I usually prefer YA to adult novels, and this is often because the problems and ideas in YA still apply to me at 21 years old. It’s rare for me to find an adult novel that I can relate to and care about like I do with YA. So I was nervous about starting Landline, worried that the book wouldn’t stand up to my love for Rowell’s YA novels.

Once again, Rainbow Rowell has proven her strange ability to get right at my heart and soul. Landline is definitely an adult novel, but it completely destroyed my fears of being unable to relate to its themes and ideas. Its themes include marriage, regret, first love versus lasting love, and figuring out whether the life you’ve been living for so many years is actually what’s right for you. Rowell has packed this book with so much character, personality, and emotion that it’s nearly overflowing. It’s nearly impossible notto find something to relate to in this book. The characters feel like close friends of yours by the end; you might even fancy calling them up to invite them over for dinner and a game night, if you could just remember their phone number.

The book follows Georgie McCool, a TV comedy writer in Los Angeles, and her husband Neal, the quiet stay-at-home dad and artist. When Georgie tells Neal she can’t go to Omaha with him to spend Christmas with his family, Neal simply packs up the kids and leaves for Omaha without Georgie, leaving her lonely and worried that her marriage is finally over. While staying with her mother over the holidays, Georgie discovers that an old phone in her bedroom has the power to call Neal in the past, back before they ever got married. Georgie has to figure out if she’s supposed to save her marriage or if maybe they would both be happier in the long run if they never got married in the first place.

Georgie is hilarious, sweet, and so busy and caught up in life that she doesn’t always stop to think of everyone around her. She loves her husband, her kids, and her job, but it’s hard for her when any of these things clash together. Neal is quieter and more reserved. Emotion doesn’t radiate off of him constantly like it radiates off of Georgie, and even getting a true smile from him is an achievement. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, Neal is deep and thoughtful. He’s an artist, and though he may not always show his emotion plainly (be it anger or happiness or anything else), there is no doubt that he contains multitudes.

What surprised me most about this novel was that I related to it separately from how I normally relate to YA novels. This is one of the first books I’ve read that related to my life as an adult specifically. I connected very strongly with Georgie, especially with her concerns about being a good wife while still taking care of her own hopes and dreams in life. Though not exactly carefree, she’s still able to really experience and enjoy life, an enviable feat. She’s thoughtful almost to a fault, overthinking just about everything she does, trying to figure out the right thing to do. It’s difficult for her to deny her own happiness, even if the things that make her happy are making her husband unhappy. She cares deeply about her family and her job, and she tries her hardest to be who everyone expects her to be and make everyone else happy. She appealed to me quite deeply, getting at the heart of some of my own fears about adulthood and being a good person. The book is witty and filled with the kind of romantic moments you can’t help but smile at while reading. It manages to be both hilarious and sweet, sometimes in the same moment. It makes you reconsider the importance of love versus happiness in a marriage and in life; if you love someone, what happens if you can’t make them happy? Is it best to let them go or keep trying? Is it better to be unhappy with the one you love or happy with someone you don’t love? Rowell examines these questions thoroughly and beautifully.

Overall, Landline is a Rainbow Rowell book through and through: it makes you feel something, and you aren’t quite the same person by the time you turn the last page.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

SNEAK: Our Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

It took me an inordinate amount of time to get through book five. I can't decide if this is because of all the angst, the ultimate sadness that I knew was coming, or a little too much Potter back to back but I've conquered it and now Victoria and I have returned to share our thoughts.

M: Okay so, what I've always said about this book is that it contains Maximum Neville, but here's the thing what this book actually is is the turning point. Everyone comes into their own in this book (with the exception of Harry who spends most of the book confused and angry and Hermione who has known who she was since birth). At one point McGonagall says to Neville, "there's nothing wrong with your work except lack of confidence." Between the release of the individuals who tortured his parents and his experience in the DA, Neville comes in to his power and ability. He's not a great wizard by the end of the book but he's getting there. More importantly though, Neville has always been a great person and I feel like book five is when he realizes it and the trio come to value him as well. And Ginny. Oh Ginny. I never cared much for Ginny on my first reading of the series, but this time around I am in awe of her awesomeness. In this book at age fourteen she decides that she will not longer be shunted to to the sidelines; things are serious, she knows how serious they are, and she is going to help. Basically, it's Neville and Ginny forever now (though not together...I'm too busy shipping Neville and Luna to think about that). So, did you come away with any different perceptions this time around?

V: Oh yeah, definitely. Because of what you said about Neville, I paid much more attention to him and to Ginny as well. I completely agree with what you said. I honestly think that a lot of the groundwork for Neville's development in this book was laid by impostor Moody in Book 4, too. Ginny definitely becomes much more of a legitimate character in this book as well, and I adored it! I'm quite a Ginny fan. One character who really surprised me in rereading was Professor McGonagall. I knew she sassed Umbridge a lot in this one, but I don't think I quite understood the full implications of that sort of behavior towards a ministry spy. It had to have taken a great deal of Gryffindor-brand courage for McGonagall to risk her job and really her life as she knows it to stand up to Umbridge like that, especially seeing as how the Ministry treated Dumbledore throughout this book. I could tell that the unfairness and injustice of the whole situation just ate at McGonagall. I was also a bit impressed with Snape. When I read the Occlumency lessons previously, I always assumed Harry and Ron were a little bit right that Snape wasn't really trying to teach him properly. I figured his hatred of Harry stopped him from trying to effectively teach. But he did seem to put in quite a bit of effort. Sure, a lot of it was through anger on both of their parts, but reading the things Snape actually said to him in their lessons, there wasn't as much cruelty and meanness as there normally is between Snape and Harry. He actually gave Harry some good advice that Harry simply ignored. And of course, Snape's worst memory...I read that so differently now that I know the whole story. But I really do with I could punch James, Sirius, AND Snape in that scene.
The thing that struck me the most in this book was actually Harry's grief for Sirius and Dumbledore's sad and pained reaction. That whole scene ripped my heart in two. Harry grieving and trying so hard to deal with this unimaginable pain, and Dumbledore knowing that, through years of trying and trying to spare Harry every bit of pain he could, he ended up causing the worst pain of all. This scene definitely cements for me the fact that Dumbledore legitimately cared for Harry. I know that comes into question later on, but I fully believe that he cared about Harry, and that he knew it was unwise of him to do so. Thoughts on that?

M: In his office, after the battle with Voldemort and the death of Sirius, Dumbledore says to Harry, "I cared about you too much ... more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed." That's something a parent feels. Most parents would let the world burn were it to save their child. It's a rather horrible thought, really, but it makes sense. And of course Dumbledore felt an almost parental affection for Harry. He was always there. So yeah, I totally believe that Dumbledore cared deeply for Harry.
Now, I feel like I need to talk about Umbridge. Before we started the series I told you that I was a bit worried that JKR had a woman problem. There was Umbridge and her terrifying femininity, Hermione's constant nagging, and Bellatrix, the Mad Woman. I believed that this problem solidified itself within this book, oh how wrong I was! In this book we do see Umbridge is terrifying and feminine but it's never a note that the two go handedly together - it's just part of this one character. Same with Bellatrix, yes she's mad and she's a woman and there is not a man that is her equal in insanity or hysterics within the series, but Sirius comes pretty close to it at times in both books 4 and 5. I believe that to be more of a tribute to Azkaban than anything else. Then there's Hermione...all of that "nagging" she's done throughout the series, well, it becomes brilliantly clear in this book that if Harry had just listened to her advice more often he would have been much better off. There's also a surprising strength in Luna who can be eerily logical when the situation demands it, and as you say, McGonagall's action throughout the book are inspiring (even at risk to her life, she was almost stunned to death for defending Hagrid). Then there's Ginny, and instead of discussing her character again I'll leave you with this quote from Fred and George, "size is no guarantee of power ... Look at Ginny." Yeah, Ginny Forever.

V: I'm so glad you feel that way! I've heard many accusations about Umbridge's character being sexist, since she ends up being more hated than Voldemort in a lot of cases, but I've never really agreed with that idea. Many people think that the hatred everyone feels for Umbridge has a lot to do with her being a woman with power, but I completely disagree. The fandom's hatred of Umbridge has to do with her realness.  There are Umbridge's out there in the world, and many kids deal with them day to day and cannot do anything to fight back. To me, it was never because she was a woman. In fact, her being feminine only made her scarier, because we normally associate that kind of femininity with kindness and more motherly qualities, but she twists that idea entirely. Umbridge is at her most dangerous when she's being falsely sweet...I honestly think Umbridge is aware of that clash and uses it to her advantage. She's probably aware that people underestimate her. I think you're right that there are some excellent examples of female characters in this series: as you said, McGonagall. Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and we should never forget Molly Weasley. Even more minor characters like Angelina Johnson, who captains the school's underdog sports team to a Quidditch Cup win...JKR knows what's up when it comes to excellent and humanized female characters.

And that wraps up our thoughts on Book 5! We've emerged emotionally damaged from Order of the Phoenix, and now we head into the penultimate book of the series, Half-Blood Prince! Don't forget to check out our read-along tweets on Twitter and our Potter postings on Tumblr! Also, don't miss our first podcast, Jiggery Pokery! We'll be recording our second podcast after we finish the series, and we'll be following up on a lot of our mid-series discussion from the first podcast.


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