Book Review: Harry Potter (1-7)

It’s hard to believe the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published in 1997 in the U.K. (1998 in the U.S.)–20 years ago! To celebrate its 20 year anniversary in the States, Target has dedicated a special section in its stores to sell some wizarding merchandise. The truth is, I bought myself a pair of Hogwarts shorts in size XL for kids. They serve as comfortable pajamas. ;)

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I didn’t start out as a Harry Potter fan; in fact, I was pretty adamant about being anti-Harry Potter for a long time and refused to add to Ms. Rowling’s billion-dollar empire. I did try to read the first book a couple of times due to many friends’ persuasions, but it simply didn’t click each time I tried. At the time I was also reading a handful of heavy novels a week for my English major courses, so I refused to abase myself with elementary school level reading, which was what I thought (and still think) of the first book. I think the The Sorcerer’s Stone was written for a middle school audience (11-13 year olds), much like the characters themselves in Book 1, so the vocabulary, jargon, and character portrayals of Harry and his friends were not relatable and captivating enough to hook me into Rowling’s wizarding fantasy. It seemed too childish.

A year ago, a friend gifted me the entire set as a specially requested item from none other than myself. I requested it because I found more time to read and decided to tackle the series with fair-mindedness. I started again with The Sorcerer’s Stone, rereading it to give it an open-minded review, and I finally finished The Deathly Hallows a couple weeks ago.  It’s difficult to remember the details of each book since it has been a year-long feat, but here are my not-so-brief thoughts and review:

To enjoy the books, one must read and think like the characters at their progressing age levels in each book. Book 1 should be read how an eleven-year-old would think and read and Book 7 as an eighteen-year-old. Although witches and wizards are nothing new, the conjuring up of a magical world with new vocabulary, i.e., Hogwarts and its wizards and witches in the middle of London mixed with regular people (“muggles”), was a brilliant, if not novel*, idea, so kudos to J.K. Rowling for allowing the reader to imagine a parallel world where witches and wizards could live amongst us and by propelling the story with a unique problem set by the protagonist and antagonist.

J.K. Rowling creates great villains. Voldemort (Tom Riddle), the Dursleys, Draco (the Malfoys), Peter ‘Wormtail’ Pettigrew, Bellatrix Lestrange, the Death Eaters, some characters from the Ministry of Magic such as Dolores Umbridge, Rita Skeeter, the dementors, and even Snape. Their cruelty and irrational/evil intentions are often so compelling that you begin to hate and/or fear them. The twist was that you also began to feel compassionate towards a few of them because of their unfortunate pasts and turn of events. In the end, Dudley was shown expressing gratitude towards Harry in his own way, Dudley’s mom, Petunia, had a sad story, where as a little girl she too wanted to attend Hogwarts but was rejected because of her non-magic gene. Her bitterness towards her sister and Harry was understandable.  Draco and the Malfoys were characters that you kind of felt sorry for in the end. And Snape, not quite a villain but characterized as so until the end, was my favorite character for his complexity, loyalty, abilities, and unintended humor (Books 3 and 4 had some funny parts that made me laugh out loud).

The heroes, on the other hand, were dull, if not terrible. Harry Potter was probably one of my least favorite characters, alongside Ron, Hagrid, and sometimes even Dumbledore. Harry was plain egocentric. Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix, was awful, filled with Harry shouting most of the time. He is said to be sixteen years old, so I guess it makes sense that a sixteen-year-old would be so self-absorbed, confused, and annoying. In most of Book 1 and in several other serious situations in latter books, Harry seemed preoccupied with Quidditch than the problems at hand. In Book 7: The Deathly Hallows, Harry finally seems to have outgrown some of his egocentric ways, but he is nonetheless annoying most of the time. Ron and Hagrid were irksome because they were–how should I put it nicely–simpleminded. Even Hermione with her preoccupation with elf rights, and in Book 6 and 7 displaying her short-sightedness with serious problems in which Harry was disclosing, disappointing the reader because we expected more and because she ended up with Ron. What a cruel joke, Ms. Rowling! And Dumbledore–a ubiquitous figure who knew everything and controlled everyone like puppets under his grand scheme to bring down Voldemort. He is said to have cared for Harry Potter, but nothing in his personal interactions with Harry gave me that impression. A classic writing flaw where the author “tells” rather than “shows” (from the adage, “show, not tell”). Dumbledore seemed a bit too distant and omniscient in a way without much character or depth until parts of Book 7. His care for Harry seemed superficial. Of all the good characters, I liked Hermione (half of the time), Lupin, Arthur and Molly Weasley, and Dobby.

Lastly, let’s talk about the failure of love story-telling. Cho-Harry, Cho-Diggory, Ron-Lavender Brown, Hermione-Viktor Krum, Ron-Hermione, Fleur Delacour-Bill Weasley, Ginny-boyfriends, Harry-Ginny. If J.K. Rowling meant to portray all the flings as what middle school and high school romance really turns out to be, then she did well in portraying them in such a juvenile way. Books 4-6 were filled with them. The only love story that was believable and moving was Snape’s love for Lily (“always“), and even that story was subdued. The love stories for the main characters felt forced and shallow.

As a whole, I liked the Harry Potter series. But I wonder if I simply liked the idea of Hogwarts–a magical school with magical people, and a magical London/world. Major events and minor stories were well developed and tied together, but the love stories could have been so much better, if not, omitted. Story-telling was best in Books 3 and 7, and maybe 6. Book 5 was rubbish. Book 4 was a bit digressive. Books 1-2 were interesting enough. And that is my review.

My next blog post on books will feature love stories that are written well.


*Side note: Sabrina the Teenage Witch was sort of like Harry Potter but it was a T.V. show and Sabrina the witch was shown growing up as a witch in a normal high school. Studio Ghibli is also known for creating fantastical realms featuring child/teenage characters, e.g., Kiki’s Delivery Service, but there were no books, or none that I know of. The Chronicles of NarniaLord of The Rings, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King are the closest comparisons to Harry Potter but The Chronicles of Narnia transports the characters in an alternative world where most of the stories take place, Lord of the Rings seem more suited for adults because of its complex themes and The Once and Future King takes place in medieval times. Harry Potter exhibits unique and original traits.

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A little of Virginia Woolf

Google search revealed that it was Virginia Woolf’s birthday yesterday, and naturally, I dug up some of her books. I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room, and A Room of One’s Own, and I remember enjoying her stream-of-consciousness style and mellow tone. Having moved so often since college, my copies are lost somewhere and all that’s left on my bookshelf are Mrs. Dalloway (not my original copy) and To the Lighthouse. An unfortunate case of lost scribbles, notes, and underlinings, forever forgotten. [sigh]. On the bright side, it gives me reason to read them again.

Here are some excerpts, lines I’ve starred or underlined throughout To the Lighthouse: 

“…sunk as he was in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all, without need of words, in a vast and benevolent lethargy of well-wishing; all the house; all the world; all the people in it,…”

“…for [the sun] was bright enough, the grass still a soft deep green, the house starred in its greenery with purple passion flowers, and rooks dropping cool cries from the high blue.”

“Naturally, if one’s days were passed in this seeing of angular essences, this reducing of lovely evenings, with all their flamingo clouds and blue and silver to a white deal four-legged table… naturally one could not be judged like an ordinary person.”

“…never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest. Never did anybody look so sad.”

“…how strangely he was venerable and laughable at one and the same time.”

“A light here required a shadow there.”

“For it was odd; and she believed it to be true; that with all his gloom and desperation he was happier, more hopeful on the whole, than she was.”

“So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a down pouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness…”

“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in a store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness. The autumn trees, ravaged as they are, take on the flash of tattered flash kindling in the gloom of cool cathedral caves where gold letters on marble pages describe death in battle and how bones bleach and burn far away in Indian sands. The autumn trees gleam in the yellow moonlight, in the light of harvest moons, the light which mellows the energy of labour, and smooths the stubble, and brings the wave lapping blue to the shore.”

“‘What beautiful boots!’ she exclaimed. She was ashamed of herself. To praise his boots when he asked her to solace his soul; when he had shown her his bleeding hands, his lacerated heart, and asked her to pity them, then to say, cheerfully, ‘Ah, but what beautiful boots you wear!’ deserved, she knew, and she looked up expecting to get it, in one of his sudden roars of ill-temper, complete annihilation.”

“…all sorts of waifs and strays and things besides.”

 

Book & Life: When Breath Becomes Air

To say that Paul Kalanithi is accomplished is a clear understatement.  He graduated from Stanford with a double major in English and biology, then he proceeded to attain his graduate degree in English. When finished, he felt the need to do something more and studied and applied for med school. While waiting for admission, he obtained another degree, studying history, at the University of Cambridge.  Then he received the news that he got accepted to Yale for med school. Instead of “settling” like his peers in dermatology or radiology, which are very competitive in themselves, he chose neurosurgery, the toughest of all fields, and received many awards for his research and accomplishments. Having achieved so much, it seemed like such a waste that he passed away during his last year of residency.  Residency for neurosurgery is at least seven years, and to have died at the very end–ugh, how devastating. He also had an 8-months-old daughter, which was the most heartbreaking part for me. His short narrative ended with a letter to his daughter. [My heart…]

I cannot compare myself to him in accomplishments, but I can relate to him at a human level (even though he seems superhuman): how he knew of all his symptoms and initially got them checked, then they were dismissed without having done any thorough scans because he was young and there were many plausible and harmless causes for his ailments. Then pain persisted and grew worse, in which he had the fear of it being something serious, but his better judgement was brushed aside by what seemed like his state of denial or placing priority on his commitments and objectives. After several ups and downs in his health, he finally sought answers for his ailments when it became absolutely debilitating. He waited and endured too long, and those ailments turned out to be stage IV lung cancer–a rare cancer for anybody under 40. The fears and devastation, along with a similar diagnosis, were all too real as I read his narrative.

His recollection of his past and description of residency was reflective but somewhat ordinary. He didn’t seem like he suffered much in his life, so there wasn’t much substance or character in his stories. He did consistently allude to his life’s goal for finding meaning, trying to find how the mind/brain works in all its intricacies: psychologically, philosophically, physically. And he was certainly knowledgeable with factual details in many fields and references to other writers, but his writing itself was nothing extraordinary as I expected much from a Stanford grad who majored in English, who was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for this autobiography. Maybe I was expecting it to be more poetic like a swan song? Aside from the writing itself, I also felt like his desire to find meaning and purpose in life very… superficial, which was why I felt the book wasn’t as great as others have deemed it to be. However, I must acknowledge that he did find meaning in his life in his own way, and I respect that he lived his life to his fullest. Though I may differ with him in his purpose in life, he sought after something more profound than what most people do not dare try to grasp. He knew he was going to die, but instead of dying, he lived–his inspiration rooted from Samuel Beckett’s words: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Going through a similar situation as him, his book haunted me with the realness of deterioration and death. While receiving treatment, he had a brief moment of feeling like he was getting better, immersing himself back to his old life in residency and surgery hours. Then his health came crashing down all of a sudden, and all too soon, he was on his deathbed. It still churns my stomach. He lived his life not fearing death, but rather, accepting that he was going to die. Despite knowing his shortened timeline, he continued his daily business and also wrote this book. What I cannot do, that he was able to do, is accept my death. Death may be a probability, but I simply cannot accept it like he did. Not that I am in denial or think death is the final end; of course not, but because… I have Christ. Whether or not I live or die, I have Christ, and for that reason I cannot accept an ending. If I live, He is my healer and Savior; if I die, He is still my healer and Savior. Because I have Christ, I have hope, and I can live with hope. I pray, I plea, I beg, I cry, I shout, I breathe: Lord, if You are willing, you can make me clean. May Your will be done. 

No matter what happens, I aspire to live with meaning, and my purpose centered around the gospel. My life may not be covered with achievements like Paul Kalanithi, but I want to make my small ordinary actions meaningful.

In the end, may my life be pleasing to Him.

January Books: Lost City Radio and The Trellis and the Vine

First seen on the ‘Staff Picks’ section of a local bookstore, I purchased Lost City Radio for leisure reading and, in my own silly way, to support the small bookstore so it won’t go out of business. Independent bookstores have disappeared everywhere and it will be so sad when this place disappears too. I go when I can and purchase books in futility as if my one purchase could prolong its existence. But I digress–back to my thoughts on the book: Set in an anonymous country in South America, people are slowly recovering from a war that has torn families and friends apart and everyone is looking for someone. There is a jungle village called 1797 and a city where the protagonist named Norma is the famous voice at a radio station who reads off names of those who are missing.  One day a boy from the jungle comes to the radio station with a list of names, one of which happens to be Norma’s missing husband. The story unfolds in a narrative that constantly switches time and scene–various characters’s past and present. Because of its ambiguous time and setting and shifting perspectives, it’s not very compelling or engaging, at least not until the end.   Ultimately, it’s about war and its damaging affects on people, of love ones lost and irremediable recovery. Tragic. On a side note, while I was reading this, Serial became popular and after listening to an episode or two of the podcast, Norma’s voice became Serial’s host voice, Sarah Koenig. I couldn’t get Sarah’s voice out of my head! Haha. Well.

The Trellis and the Vine was a recommended reading as a new member of my church. It describes  the roles of each member in the church and how ultimately our job as Christians is gospel work. Everyone is responsible to grow in faith, keep each other accountable, and spread the good news (by making disciples) so that the “vine” grows for His kingdom. A quick read with common questions answered, one of mine being, “Does calling people to ‘ministry’ create two classes of Christians–the special, gifted ones who aspire to the noble calling of full-time ministry, and the rest of the plebs who are consigned to working a job in order to give money to the special ones?”     Practical reminders.

Love Language

No, I’m not talking about the 5 Love Languages; I’m talking about a language that is unspoken yet understood between two people who love each other.

I’m currently in the middle of reading Anna Karenina, near the scene where love has blossomed between Levin and Kitty.

The way they communicated with each other to confirm their reciprocal love was not through a spoken language.  To be discreet amongst the people with whom they were gathered, they merely jotted down letters as codes for their questions and responses.

Here is a snippet of the passage:

‘How can I stay alone… without her?’ he thought with horror and he took the chalk.  ‘Wait,’ he said, sitting down at the table.  ‘There is one thing I’ve long wanted to ask you [Kitty].’

[Levin] looked straight into her tender though frightened eyes.

‘Please do.’

‘Here,’ he said, and wrote the initial letters: w, y, a, m: t, c, b, d, i, m, n, o, t?  These letters meant: ‘When you answered me,: “that cannot be”, did it mean never or then?’ There was no likelihood that she would be able to understand this complex phrase, but he watched her with such a look as if his life depended on her understanding these words.

She glanced at him seriously, then leaned her knitted brow on her hand and began to read.  Occasionally she glanced at him, asking with her glance: ‘Is this what I think?’

‘I understand,’ she said, blushing.

‘What is this word?’ he said, point to the n that signified the word never.

‘That means the word never,’ she said, ‘but it’s not true!’

He quickly erased what was written, gave her the chalk and got up.  She wrote: t, I, c, g, n, o, a.

… He suddenly beamed: he had understood. It meant: ‘Then I could give no other answer.’

He glanced at her questioningly, timidly.

‘Only then?’

‘Yes,’ her smile replied.

‘And n… And now?’ he asked.

‘Well, here, read this. I’ll tell you what I would wish.  Would wish very much!’ She wrote the initial letters: t, y, c, f, a, f, w, h.  It meant: ‘that you could forgive and forget what happened’.

He seized the chalk with his tense, trembling fingers and, breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following: ‘I have nothing to forgive and forget, I have never stopped loving you.’

She glanced at him, the smile staying on her lips.

‘I understand,’ she said in a whisper.

He sat down and wrote a long phrase.  She understood everything and, without asking him if she was right, took the chalk and replied at once.

For a long time he could not understand what she had written and kept glancing in her eyes.  A darkening came over him from happiness. He simply could not pick out the words she had in mind; but in her lovely eyes shining with happiness he understood everything he needed to know! And he wrote three letters.  But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: ‘Yes.’

In their conversation everything had been said — that she loved him, that she would tell her father and mother, that he would come tomorrow in the morning.

Thus, the two lovebirds communicated without talking, and everything was understood.

It’s funny how communication works between two people who love each other. Even with the simplest conversations, like giving directions, you would think that the two would understand the most ambiguous of phrases, simply because they know each other so well.

But that didn’t happen to me and my husband today in a rather comical situation.

We ate lunch at a ramen place and decided to get dessert at a popular ice cream shop nearby.  We had 10 minutes left on our parking meter and thought it would be okay to quickly get ice cream and make it back to the car since there were only a few people waiting out the door (usually there’s a long line out the door). We walked over and stood in line, realizing that though we were up next to go inside, there were 3-4 groups inside deciding on orders. Husband was getting anxious about the parking, so I told him to get the car while I ordered for him and to wait for me in the lot behind the ice cream shop.

When I was paying for the ice cream, he texted me, “I parked on College Ave., head away from the ramen place.”

Confusing, no? Where on College Ave., and what did he mean by ‘away‘???

(To provide a bit of context, College Ave. extends for ~3 or 4 miles north and south, and the ramen and ice cream places are both on College Ave.  When husband said “away from the ramen place,” I immediately wondered “north or south?”

I stood outside the ice cream shop, holding two cups in hand, one beginning to drip on the sides. I texted him, “What do you mean ‘away’? North or south?”

“South, opposite the ramen place.”

Again, I wondered, “What does he mean by ‘opposite‘?” but continued to walk south, because that’s what he said.

While walking some distance, maybe a 1-2 minutes later, he called again asking where I was; perhaps this was our only moment of understanding in which we understood that we didn’t understand each other.  Maybe he had a feeling that I wasn’t going where he wanted me to go.

And alas, I was going opposite of where he wanted me to go. When he said ‘south’ he meant ‘north’ (because he has a horrible sense of direction), and when he said ‘away’ and ‘opposite’ of the ramen place, he meant, ‘towards the ice cream shop.’

It is (sort of) my fault; I knew this about him; I knew he had  a horrible sense of direction, and I knew he always, always, without fail, instinctively went the opposite direction of every destination we have ever embarked upon. I should have known that when he said south, he meant north.

I laughed and laughed, and he was perplexed.