A Few Thoughts on Re-Reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Again)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneI like to have audio books going when I’m doing mindless housework or making soap (though I haven’t made soap in a while). I don’t know why, but I decided to listen to the Harry Potter books again, even though I just re-read them (the British versions) last year. I could, I guess, space out my re-reads a bit. But one reason I did it is there is nothing like Harry Potter to perk me up. I was feeling just about as bad as I have ever felt when I discovered the books for the first time. I was actually reading the first one, I think, close to when 9/11 happened, if not during that time. I know I read it before that first movie came out that November. It seemed like when I was feeling my worst, there were these books, and they really did help me escape for a little while and feel a lot less bad about everything. I will always be grateful to them for that.

In this re-listen, a few interesting things popped into my head. First, it still irks me that Scholastic re-titled the book for Americans. The Sorcerer’s Stone is not a thing. The Philosopher’s Stone is a known alchemical object. Any reader who doesn’t know what something is can look it up. And many of them will. I would have (and did) as a child. Second, this book might be the only one of the series that doesn’t treat on the anti-Muggle and Muggle-born prejudice storyline. In fact, both Hagrid and McGonagall say things that one might consider anti-Muggle. McGonagall says “they’re not completely stupid,” when telling Dumbledore the Muggles are noticing the celebration of Voldemort’s downfall. Hagrid tells Harry that he was unfortunate to grow up in a family of “the biggest Muggles” around. There could be a couple of reason for this oversight:

  • J. K. Rowling didn’t know she’d be able to publish a whole series. I have had this argument with people before because she claims she had the whole series planned out (of course, she also changed and tweaked as she went along). I don’t care if she did. She can’t have known she’d be able to write seven books (and all the other things that came later, either). She had to tie the book up in a bow, and establishing this dark story arc that couldn’t be resolved in one book might have been a risk.
  • There might not have been room for it. Her editors did cut some things. She has alluded to this fact. She has said in interviews they wanted to cut the troll scene, and she put her foot down on that one as necessary for establishing the trio’s friendship. Not to mention their bravery and ability to work together to fight in a tight spot.
  • She hadn’t thought of it. See first bullet point, but I’m just saying it’s possible.
  • She had a lot of world-building and character-establishing to do and couldn’t fit it in gracefully when so much about the Wizarding World needed to be established first.

If you look at books 2-7, you see a very clear story arc about prejudice. I would argue that the series transcends a fun children’s series and becomes something more with that arc, but the first book still has some of my favorite scenes in the series:

  • Harry’s release of the boa constrictor from Brazil.
  • Harry’s first look at the Wizarding World when he steps through the brick wall doorway in the back of the Leaky Cauldron and sees Diagon Alley for the first time.
  • Harry’s sorting and the start-of-term feast (does anyone write food like Rowling?).
  • Harry’s first class with Snape.
  • The Halloween Feast and the troll.
  • The Mirror of Erised.

It’s funny that even after reading this book probably more than two dozen times, I still find things to enjoy and notice things I forgot or perhaps hadn’t noticed before.

 

Review: Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly, narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bering

I believe I’ve just finished reading my last book of 2015, and it was a re-read of one of my favorites, Jennifer Donnelly’s novel Revolution. This time, I listened to the audio book. I have this book in hardcover, Kindle, and audio book, but I hadn’t listened to it until this week. It was even better on a re-read than it was the first time I read it.

Since I reviewed the book last time I read it, this time, I really want to mention a couple of things that struck me. First, this book is tightly written. It all works. I picked up on so many things I missed on a first reading. The sections of Dante’s poetry correspond well to Andi’s descent into darkness and her literal descent into hell in the catacombs, where she is, naturally, accompanied by Virgil. I was so swept away with the plot the first time I read that I missed some of the artistry of the writing. Equally impressive is Donnelly’s research. She fictionalizes some details. Andi’s thesis focus, the composer Amadé Mahlerbeau, is fictional, as are her Nobel-prize winning father and his historian friend G. However, they all have their basis in historical or contemporary figures who do similar work. Another thing I noticed about Donnelly’s writing is that she allows the reader to be creative and connect the dots. She doesn’t knock you over the head with the connections. She wants you to do the work. She wants you to do some digging and find out what she has learned.

I also noticed how well Donnelly pulls off the twinning. Maximilien Robespierre and the schizophrenic Maximilien R. Peters, who is responsible for the death of Andi’s brother Truman, work very well in a pair and serve as an interesting symbol of the brutality and stupidity of the world and the cyclical nature of history’s desperate individuals. It’s almost not too hard to believe that Alex might reach across history, 200 years in the future, to save Andi and let her know that just because the world goes on, stupid and brutal, it doesn’t mean that she has to—she can be a positive force for good in the world. She can make people happy. The world can be a scary, crazy place. Particularly today, we see a lot of stories in the news that make us despair and make us want to give up. Perhaps in the end, all we have left to do is to do the good that we can. We don’t have to participate in the world’s brutality and stupidity.

Donnelly said in an interview that “a good story with a compelling character that’s well written should appeal to anybody.” I think that’s why this book is so good. Andi may be a teenager, but the fact that she is a young protagonist doesn’t make her story any less applicable or interesting. This book really makes me want to write, and that’s always the sign of a really good book to me—the ones that make me want to write.

Emily Janice Card narrated most of the book, while Emma Bering narrated Alex’s diary entries. Both narrators were brilliant. Card especially does a brilliant job bringing Andi’s sarcastic and hard edge to life. You can hear the chip on her shoulder. Card happens to be the daughter of Orson Scott Card. I read that she was named for two of my favorite writers (and Orson Scott Card’s, apparently): Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë. I really didn’t want to stop listening to this book. I have to be doing something mindless while I listen to audio books or else I get distracted from the story. When I didn’t have anything mindless to occupy me while listening to this book, I pulled my hardcover off the shelf and read along with the narrators. I need to go back and re-read a few favorite passages.

Last time I read this book, I was craving more books just like it, but I’m afraid there probably aren’t any. It’s brilliant.

Keep scrolling for the book’s playlist. You don’t want to miss it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

The playlist for this particular book is massive and varied, as Andi is one of those folks who loves music. All kinds. I suspect it needs a bit of revision because there are musical references on just about every page of the book. That’s another thing I love about it. The music.

R.I.P. Challenge VII

R.I.P. Recap

I did not complete the R.I.P. Challenge this year. It’s absolutely my favorite challenge of the year, but I only managed to read one book that could be considered part of the challenge, and it wasn’t even one of the books I planned to count. By the way, I did make a soap inspired by Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season. I call it Vanilla Sugar Cane. Its ingredients are olive oil, water, coconut oil, palm oil, sodium hydroxide, sweet almond oil, cocoa butter, and castor oil, along with a vanilla sugar fragrance that is an exact duplicate of Bath & Body Works’ Warm Vanilla Sugar fragrance—one of my favorites. I can’t wait until this soap is ready.

I did not manage to finish Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’m giving up on it because it just didn’t do anything for me. I don’t know what’s wrong with me because it has all the elements I usually like in books: a creepy carnival visiting a small town in the fall; lots of imagery; a story that can be read on multiple levels. I think ultimately, I don’t care much for the characters. I have seen the movie (many years ago), and I liked it, so I can’t explain why the book is just not appealing to me. I find it is not difficult to put down, and I keep looking at it, thinking I should pick it up. At this point, I’ve maxed out my library renewals, and I just don’t have a desire to try to finish it. I feel like I’m giving the book the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” speech. But I really feel like it is me. People love this book. I did make a soap inspired by Mr. Crosetti’s cotton candy. It was pink and cotton-candy scented. However, as the soap cured, it turned a deeper shade closer to purple. My feeling is it now looks like appropriately dark and twisted cotton candy, and Mr. Dark would approve. I will probably just gift it to the kids in my family for Christmas.

I enjoyed the challenge I set for myself of thinking of an appropriate soap inspired by the books I read for this challenge. I am not sure I’d want to do it for every challenge or every book, but it was fun, and just like the books, I was really pleased with how the Vanilla Sugar Cane Soap came out from the very start, and as it cures, it is shaping up into a very nice soap, just like the book. On the other hand, I was initially pleased with the Cotton Candy Soap, and over time, I found my enthusiasm cooled as the soap changed a funny color, which mirrors my feelings for the book on which I based it.

This year is shaping up to be a bad reading year for me all the way around. I am already feeling a pull to re-read [amazon asin=0143105434&text=Wuthering Heights]. I recognize the signs: I start Googling things related to the book and looking for film versions on Netflix. And I don’t have time. I have other books I’ve committed to read. That book is a damned siren.

So how did you do with the challenge this year? How’s your reading year shaping up as we slide into the final two months?

Dragonfly in Amber (audio), Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander)In my quest to read (or reread, as in this case) the entire Outlander series this year, I joined the Outlander Series Reading Challenge and have already completed the first book in the series, [amazon_link id=”0440423201″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link]. I thought I might enjoy listening to the books this time, and Davina Porter, the narrator, does indeed do a fabulous job reading the books. She has different voices for the different characters, and she is expressive and interesting to listen to.

[amazon_link id=”0385335970″ target=”_blank” ]Dragonfly in Amber[/amazon_link] is the second book in the seven-book (as of today’s date) series. It begins in 1968, when Claire Randall and her daughter Brianna visit Scotland. Claire enlists the help of Roger Wakefield, adopted son of her late husband Frank’s friend Reverend Wakefield, to find out what happened to the men under the command of Jamie Fraser at the Battle of Culloden. Claire inexplicably disappeared through a cleft in the stone circle known as Craigh na Dun during a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in 1946 and wound up 200 years in the past. Before slipping back through the stones on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, Claire built a life for herself in the past as Jamie Fraser’s wife. Knowing the Highland clans will be destroyed after Culloden, Claire and Jamie work as double agents, trying to prevent the disaster. They find themselves caught up in intrigues at the French court of Louis XV before returning to Scotland.

I find this second book to be interesting for its development of Claire and Jamie’s relationship. They endure the horrible loss of their daughter Faith, an event which nearly destroys their marriage, as well as danger and privation as they find themselves swept up in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion. I join those readers who don’t enjoy the part of this novel in which Jamie and Claire live in France as much as the rest, but I found that during this reread, I actually enjoyed the frame part of the story that takes place in 1968, which I didn’t like much the first time I read the novel. I think the idea that Claire would ever return to Frank and leave Jamie just bothered me too much at the time. I found I liked the older Claire: she aged well. She’s still sexy in her 40’s, and she also became a medical doctor at a time when that profession did not include many women. I also found I liked Brianna better this time. I didn’t like her much the first time I read her, and I wonder if Davina Porter’s characterization of her contributed to my change of heart. Diana Gabaldon has said before that she had a hard time creating Brianna. I was not a huge fan of Roger Wakefield’s the first time, either, but I liked him better this time.

I noticed on this rereading, as I did with Outlander, that Gabaldon includes a lot of subplot and detail that develops characters, but doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward. Considering the length of the books, I think she could cut some of this detail without harming the character development, and I find the further I read into the series, the less patience I have for it. I may not mind so much once I start reading the books that I have never read before, but as I have reread the first two books, I’ve been annoyed by the extra details.

Still, Diana Gabaldon has a gift for creating characters and setting, and the end of the book, even on a reread, was unputdownable.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Empty Borders

Sunday Salon—October 2, 2011

Empty Borders

The picture above is making the rounds after being posted by Reddit user Jessers25. One of the reasons I am sad that Borders is closing is that it was the closest bookstore to me, and now with no indie stores (at least none that sell new books—all used bookstores) and Barnes and Noble fairly far away, it’s extremely difficult for this reader to support brick-and-mortar bookstores.

This week I finished [amazon_link id=”0312558171″ target=”_blank” ]The Ballad of Tom Dooley[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb (review). I also thought about which books I’d like to re-read.

This weekend was a long weekend for me as I work at a Jewish high school, but I am not Jewish myself, so Rosh Hashanah became true time off for me—for my colleagues it is spent in synagogue rather than work, or at least part of it is. Saturday was cold and perfect for curling up with a cup of tea and Aunt Jane, so I dove back into [amazon_link id=”9626343613″ target=”_blank” ]Sense And Sensibility[/amazon_link] again. I listened and read along with the text with my old [amazon_link id=”0553213342″ target=”_blank” ]Bantam copy of the book[/amazon_link], which was the first copy of the book that I bought years ago and read in probably 1998 for the first time. I remember that because it was my first year teaching. I wonder if Ruben Toledo will be designing a cover for it like he did [amazon_link id=”0143105426″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link]? I just love his cover designs.

[amazon_image id=”0143105426″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Pride and Prejudice: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143105434″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Wuthering Heights: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106155″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Jane Eyre: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image]

[amazon_image id=”0143105442″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Scarlet Letter: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106147″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Picture of Dorian Gray: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0143106163″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Dracula: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)[/amazon_image]

Did I miss any of them? Let me know in the comments.

I am also reading [amazon_link id=”0441020674″ target=”_blank” ]Those Across the River[/amazon_link] by Christopher Buehlman for the R.I.P. Challenge. Good so far, and set in my home state of Georgia. I initially suspected that the woods near the Savoyard Plantation were populated with zombies, but I understand that they are probably werewolves instead. I will find out shortly, I suppose.

Today is Matthew Pearl’s birthday! He’s one of my favorite writers. Leave him a birthday wish on Twitter or on his Facebook fan page. I can’t wait for his next book, [amazon_link id=”1400066573″ target=”_blank” ]The Technologists[/amazon_link]. I have enjoyed his previous books:

[amazon_image id=”0812978021″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Last Dickens: A Novel[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”0812970128″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Poe Shadow: A Novel[/amazon_image] [amazon_image id=”034549038X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Dante Club: A Novel[/amazon_image]

The Sunday Salon

The Lace Reader: A Re-Read

The Lace Reader: A NovelI first read Brunonia Barry’s debut novel The Lace Reader right before it was published as an advanced reader copy. You can read my review here. I decided to re-read the novel after my trip to Salem. I think Barry’s Map of True Places captures the character of Salem perhaps more clearly than Barry’s first novel, but I think that The Map of True Places is also more about Salem than The Lace Reader. It’s strange, but this time reading, I did see some elements of a feminine hero’s journey that I didn’t pick up on before. Before I go on, I should warn you that I won’t divulge the big reveal at the end of the book, but the remainder of this review might be a bit spoilery.

Katherine Howe, writer of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, has said that historically dogs have been considered witches’ familiars in greater numbers than cats, who have the association with witchcraft today. She gave her Connie a little dog named Arlo in her book. I wondered as I read about all the dogs on Yellow Dog Island, who seemed to be able to know what Towner wanted and would listen to her, especially in one crucial scene in the end. Did Barry intend to hearken back to the idea of dogs as familiars, or was it a coincidental choice? I myself would consider Towner, May, and Eva to be witches in a sense, though they don’t explicitly embrace that notion themselves in the same way that Ann Chase does.

One of the elements Joseph Campbell describes as an aspect of many hero’s journeys is the rebirth in the forest or the cave. For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry walks into the Forbidden Forest to face Voldemort, fully believing he will die. Instead, the Horcrux inside him is destroyed, and he is, in a sense, reborn. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck fakes his own death to escape from Pap. He emerges from the cave on the island a new person, so to speak. I saw a similar rebirth in The Lace Reader. Toward the end, when Towner is trying to rescue Angela from Cal’s followers, the two women travel through a secret doorway in Eva’s basement that leads to a tunnel. Because the tide is in, the water partially fills the tunnel, and the women will have to swim in order to escape because Cal’s followers have set fire to Eva’s house behind them. Towner takes Angela by the hair and instructs her to go limp so that she can help both of them swim to the end of the tunnel. They emerge in Eva’s boathouse at the other end. In a way, this seemed to me to be a feminization of the emergence from the cave in that the water surrounded the women. It actually made me think it might be a metaphor for the birth canal. After that moment, both women are in a sense reborn. I wondered if that metaphor had occurred to Barry, if she had been aiming for it. By the way, I subscribe to the belief that just because a writer didn’t intentionally mean to create a symbol or metaphor, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Reading is a creative act, and we bring our thoughts and experiences to reading. If we see a symbol there, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s there. Tolkien is famous, for example, for hating allegory. Yet The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion can be read as biblical allegory. I actually like Jasper Fforde’s explanation: he says a book only belongs to an author as long as no one else has read it. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the creative act of reading allows for readers to interpret books in ways that authors might not have considered. And they’re right, too.

The Lace Reader is more intriguing on a re-read because knowing the big reveal at the end enabled me to read the book with a different eye. I caught many more of Barry’s hints regarding what might be going on in Towner’s psyche than I did when I read it the first time. Unreliable narrators are difficult because I think as readers we are trained to trust the person telling the story, and some people don’t like this book because they feel betrayed by the narrator. However, Barry has not betrayed anyone. It would take a more astute reader than I to pick up on all the clues on a first read, but she does plant clues, and in the end, the big reveal makes sense given what the reader knows about Towner and how other characters react to her. Re-reading revealed much more starkly to me the ways in which Barry takes pains not to cheat the reader, but I think some of the negative comments I’ve seen about this book centered around not feeling prepared for that ending, and on a re-read, I didn’t think it is a fair criticism. I admit to being surprised by the ending the first time, but it isn’t completely out of the blue, and it makes sense in the story. And as I said in my last review, readers would do well to take Towner at her word in the first few sentences. She is telling the truth, there.

I think Barry is an interesting writer. She has a great knack for evoking a place, turning that place into a character in its own right. Her secondary characters like Eva, Ann Chase, who appears in both of her novels, and Melville, Finch, and Jessina in The Map of True Places are well-drawn and fun to read. In all, I think The Map of True Places is a stronger book, and I think those who didn’t enjoy The Lace Reader precisely for the reasons I discussed will like it better, but I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I thought this interview, in which Barry examines the novel herself with a critical eye, was illuminating.

Both times I have read this book, I’ve finished wanting know how to make lace. I am looking forward to whatever Brunonia Barry writes next. I find her writing inspiring in that I would like to be able to write about place and create such interesting characters in the same way that she does.

My rating is still the same.

Rating: ★★★★★

Full disclosure: I received this book originally as an advanced reader copy, and the second copy, the one I re-read, as part of a prize package from William Morrow and Destination Salem. I like the paperback cover better than the hardcover version.