13 August 2009

TGHPR-R 2009: The Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4) This is the first Harry Potter book I actually had to wait for. My college roommate got me Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets for Christmas one year, and Prisoner of Azkaban was published not long after, so I was able to read books 1-3 right in a row, whereas I had to wait a year for Goblet of Fire. I remember that, on the day it was officially released, my family was on its way to Lancaster for a day trip, and I begged my father to stop at the bookstore on our way out of town so I could buy my copy.

(He was awesome and complied. This was before the midnight release parties began and which I attended for the last two books. That's a story for book 6, however.)

Okay, so I'll be honest: while I do love Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I also think it's the most bloated of the Harry Potter books -- books 1-3 are more streamlined (read: shorter) and books 5-7 are, for the most part, necessarily long -- and while Goblet of Fire has numerous important storylines, there is a lot of filler that would make it a quicker, more intense read.

It's Harry's fourth year at Hogwarts, and instead of holding the annual Quidditch/House cup, the school will be hosting the Triwizard Tournament, in which three champions from three different wizarding schools compete for a thousand galleons and the glory of his or her school. This means we finally learn about two other wizarding schools in Goblet of Fire -- Beauxbatons and Durmstrang -- and meet their respective headmasters: Madame Maxine and Igor Karkaroff, both of whom contrast really delightfully with Dumbledore.

Harry isn't planning on entering the tournament -- in fact, he's looking forward to cheering on the Hogwarts champion, hanging out with Ron and Hermione, and crushing on Cho Chang from afar -- but when the Goblet of Fire spits out his name, Harry has no choice but to participate, despite the fact that he is slowly beginning to believe that someone entered him into the tournament in the hopes that it would kill him.

We meet or revisit a number of other characters in Goblet of Fire, some of whom are very significant to later books: Victor Krum, the Bulgarian Quidditch player and Durmstrang champion; Fleur DeLacour, part-veela, Beauxbatons champion, and later Bill Weasley love interest; Rita Skeeter, the queen of yellow journalism; Mad-Eye Moody, the famous Auror and newest DADA teacher; and of course, Cedric Diggory, the (true) Hogwarts champion and all-around decent guy, who suffers one of the most upsetting fates in the Harry Potter series.

(Seriously, if you can read the section where his ghost asks Harry to return his body to his parents, where Mrs. Diggory talks about how at least Cedric "died happy" while Mr. Diggory sobs in the background, where Dumbledore gives his "Remember Cedric Diggory" speech, without tearing up, you're made of stone, I tell you! I'm tearing up at I write this!

Now I feel kind of lame, but I think it's a testament to how well-drawn Cedric Diggory is. He's a fairly minor character in the grand scheme of things, but Rowling makes you feel his death profoundly. He's a genuinely good guy who dies because he refuses to claim victory in the tournament alone -- he believes Harry deserves it more and only touches the cup when Harry suggests they share it. I mean, seriously, how honorable is that? *TEAR*)

Anyway, I love the character and backstory development here as well. I was most interested in the history of the Death Eaters and the continued slow reveal of Snape's involvement with them and with Voldemort (this is, of course, especially important when you consider where Snape's storyline is going as we head into the later books). Again, it shows remarkable planning on J. K. Rowling's part -- we're slowly learning about the prophecy, about why Dumbledore trusts Snape, and so on -- which I appreciate as a re-reader.

The overarching "villainous plot" is a little convoluted (I'm not quite sure why Voldemort's faithful servant/spy couldn't have cooked up a Portkey before the third task in June), but it does offer a lot of payoff for events and characters throughout the book. Voldemort's resurrection is pretty terrifying, and the conflict that arises between the "good guys" at the end (the Ministry of Magic's refusal to believe that Voldemort has returned) is realistic and sets up book 5 well.

Ultimately, Goblet of Fire is way too long, though, and could do with a good trim (or chop, depending on how much you feel is unnecessary). I think Hermione's fight for house elf rights, while totally in character, is too drawn-out and doesn't really pay off enough in later books to warrant so much space in this one. The three tasks are also spread out so much that I feel the entire competition loses its intensity (part of me wonders, "Really? They cancelled the annual Quidditch cup for 3 tasks over 3 days out of the whole school year?").

I also think that the World Quidditch Cup scenes at the beginning of the book go on a little long, and the character of Ludo Bagman could probably be excised without too much being lost. Too, Rowling tends to offer a lot of previouslies here instead of trusting that her reader is familiar enough with the first three books and doesn't need an explanation of Hagrid's love of dangerous creatures, for example, or the entire plots of books 1-3...

Oh, and don't get me started on Voldemort's chapter-long, post-resurrection monologue (I kept imagining Syndrome from The Incredibles: "Oh, ho ho! You sly dog! You got me monologuing! I can't believe it!").

We see Harry start to grow up here, along with Hermione and (to an extent) Ron. Voldemort rises again. A major character dies. The wizarding world is at odds, as the book ends. Overall, Goblet of Fire is a solid transition between the innocence (of sorts) of books 1-3 and the darkness to come in books 5-7.

As Hagrid very wisely notes, "What's comin' will come, an' we'll meet it when it does."

10 August 2009

Those Who Can...

I wrote a whole long post about my (continued) pathos about teaching, but rather than subject you to it -- it's very prosaic -- I'll just link the article that resonated so strongly with me:

"Why I Left Teaching Behind" by Sarah Fine (The Washington Post, 9 August 2009)

I feel much the same about teaching as Fine does, for many of the same reasons, especially as she discusses the current perception of teachers -- "the fact that," as she writes, "a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession."

One of my least favorite quotes of all time is "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Because, please. The Simpsons says it best:

Dance Instructor: Marge, there's an old saying about those who can't

Marge: Teach?

Dance Instructor: No, they go home. How can you teach if you can't

And... word.

06 August 2009

Ros Needs to Relax: The Car Dance Remix

I am so needlessly stressed out by my summer job. It's not what I'm doing (because, to be perfectly honest, a monkey could probably do this job, so long as he followed the building's strict dress code) but rather the people I'm working with.

They are driving me crazy. Let me give you an example:

As I've mentioned before, a lot of my job involves alphabetizing evaluations and sending them to the file room by the box. I've probably sent about 8 or 9 boxes to the file room over the last four weeks.

So yesterday afternoon, the AA who supervises me calls me. "We're looking for [insert name here]'s evaluation," she says. "Have we received it?"

I look at my (carefully kept) records. "Yes, we received it a few weeks ago," I say. "It should be in the file room."

Twenty minutes later, AA comes to my desk. "Can you go down to the file room?" she asks. "They can't find the evaluation."

Would you like to know why they can't find it? They can't find it because they haven't filed a single box that I've sent down since I started working here. When I got down to the file room, I found the evaluation in five minutes. In a box. That I sent over a month ago.

Seriously, what do these people do all day? They work in the file room. Shouldn't they be, I don't know, filing?

... Anyway. It's frustrating, and it makes the endless traffic that I sit in on my way home from work even worse.

So when I got home yesterday afternoon, knowing that I'd be turning around and driving back out to Jess's, I decided to make a CD of songs that would inspire more car dancing and less swearing:
  1. I Got a Feeling -- Black Eyed Peas
  2. Inside Out -- Eve 6
  3. Monkeywrench -- Foo Fighters
  4. That's Not My Name -- The Ting-Tings
  5. Mercy Me -- Alkaline Trio
  6. Right Round -- Flo Rida
  7. Love and Memories -- OAR
  8. Sexbomb (Peppermint Disco Remix) -- Tom Jones
  9. Original Prankster -- Offspring
  10. Untouched -- The Veronicas
  11. How Far We've Come -- Matchbox 20
  12. Rock Star -- Prima J
  13. Who Do You Love -- Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
  14. Timebomb -- Beck
  15. So Sad to Say -- Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  16. Shut Up and Let Me Go -- The Ting Tings
  17. We Used to Be Frieds -- Dandy Warhols
  18. Don't Trust Me -- 3Oh!3
  19. Blue Skies -- Blue October
  20. American Idiot -- Green Day
In the end, car dancing was the ultimate destresser. I just turned up the music superloud and sang along (superloud) and danced as I drove (superflail!).

(This was especially helpful when, driving home from Jess's, I got caught up in unexpected roadwork, and the normally 35-minute drive was... an hour and a half. Closing three out of four lanes of traffic on a major highway? Not cool, road guys. Not cool.)

04 August 2009

TGHPR-R 2009: The Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3) Taren at The Chick Manifesto posted a question about spoilers last week that made me pause a bit before writing this post. I find it difficult to write about books without giving away too much, but I really do think that, for Harry Potter at least, the no-spoiler rule expired a while ago. So if you haven't read Harry Potter yet, (1) get on that (2) before reading the rest of this post.

So Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is definitely my favorite of the early Harry Potter books. (In my head, I split the series in half -- books 1-4 are rerise-of-Voldemort and books 5-7 are how-do-we-redestroy-Voldemort.)It's also the last of the streamlined books in the series -- I started re-reading The Goblet of Fire last night, and holy macaroni, I can barely hold it -- but despite this, Prisoner of Azkaban packs a lot of story, backstory, and character development into what is, comparatively, a short read.

The story begins, as always, at the end of Harry's miserable summer with the Dursleys, but Harry's stay with them ends this time on his own terms, as he packs up and storms out after a galling (and funny) incident with Aunt Marge. Harry catches the Knight Bus quite by accident, but not before he learns about the escaped criminal Sirius Black and sees the big black dog that seems to follow him throughout the rest of the story.

Once Harry returns to Hogwarts for his third year, we begin to learn more about Harry's father, James, and his time at school, as well as about the circumstances surrounding Harry's parents' deaths, which are more complicated than we (and Harry) originally thought. We meet Remus Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and one of my favorite characters in the series, who has a number of secrets that affect Harry greatly. Lupin is such a tragic figure -- I would argue more so even than Sirius Black -- but he bears his burdens with dignity, recognizes his errors, and tries to rectify them.

(Obviously I think Snape is the most tragic figure in this series, for reasons that are not revealed in Prisoner of Azkaban but that we see inklings of in his interactions with Sirius during the climax. Poor Snape. Knowing his history and what is to come, I feel a lot more sympathy for him in rereading the series.)

We also meet the Dementors, the Azkaban guards who have come, ostensibly, to protect Hogwarts from the threat of Sirius Black but whose true motives are suspect. (I mean, even Dumbledore hates them, and I tend to trust Dumbledore's judgement.) The Dementors are seriously frightening, and the fact that whenever Harry is around them, he hears his mother about to be killed by Voldemort, well, that doesn't make them any more cuddly.

But the Dementors lead Harry to work with Lupin more closely and to learn the Patronus spell -- which of course plays a significant role in the rest of the series but also leads to one of its most powerful scenes as well, when Harry sends his fully formed Patronus -- a stag -- against the Dementors in order to save himself, Hermione, and Sirius from the Dementor's Kiss. (I'll be honest here: the moment that the Patronus stag returns to Harry and he realizes its significance always makes me cry. No less so on this reread.)

When I first read Prisoner of Azkaban, I remember that the climax in the Shrieking Shack, when Harry discovers the truth about Sirius Black, took me by surprise, but in the reread, I see how perfectly Rowling sets it up (even from the beginning of The Sorcerer's Stone, when Hagrid mentions seeing Sirius Black at the ruins of the Potter house). I especially like how a number of plot points from the two previous books return here: the origin of the Whomping Willow and the longevity of Scabbers, among others.

I also love Buckbeak, of course, and how Hagrid's efforts to save him intersect with Hermione's Time-Turner and Sirius's eventual escape. Every plot point, in fact, seems to dovetail at the end, which, for me, makes this the most satisfying book of the Harry Potter series.

Ultimately, so much is introduced in Prisoner of Azkaban that it could feel more like exposition than plot. But the story -- of the hunt for Sirius Black, of Harry's struggle with the Dementors and what he experiences when he's around them, of the continually developing friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione (which is tested and reaffirmed yet again) -- is both gripping and affecting.

It is, in essence, the perfect lead-up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which begins the descent into the darker half of the Harry Potter series. Oh, yes, now the death count truly begins, and I have to keep tissues nearby for cry-worthy moments, of which there are many.

30 July 2009

Is that your tail in the water, or are you just happy to see me?, or, Sea Change by Aimee Friedman

Sea Change
You know, Jess has lent me a lot of books over the last few years, some of which I have loved (The Hunger Games, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks), some of which I have not-so-loved (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), and some of which I couldn't drag myself through (er, perhaps better not named, yes?). Usually, though, Jess is right on, so when she raved about Sea Change by Aimee Friedman, I was definitely willing to give it a try.

And I'm so glad I did.

Sea Change begins as Miranda, the protagonist, takes the ferry to Selkie Island, a small island off the coast of Georgia. Her grandmother, Isadora, has recently died and left the family summer house, the Mariner, to Miranda's mother, with whom Isadora had a falling out thirty years earlier. Miranda's mother, a successful New York surgeon, plans to clear out the house and sell it and has asked Miranda to help.

The story follows Miranda as she arrives on Selkie and learns about its mysterious history as well as her mother's. There are actually a number of mysteries within the story -- why did Miranda's mother have a falling out her own mother, Isadora? Why did Isadora leave the Selkie house to Miranda's mother? What happened between Miranda and her best friend in NY? -- and all are interesting and, ultimately, satisfyingly resolved.

The central mystery, of course, deals with the legend of Selkie island's original inhabitants -- are said legends based in reality? Friedman manages to keep Miranda (and the reader) guessing about this throughout, and I love that she leaves the answer to this question open-ended.

The most significant comment I can make about Sea Change is that it is beautifully written. This is a huge compliment, trust me -- a lot of YA these days ignores the style part in favor of plot-love-triangle-sparkly-vampire-love-shield, and so I really appreciate it when an author makes the effort to utilize evocative language and imagery. Friedman's writing style truly captures the mysterious atmosphere of Selkie Island while also developing it as a place steeped in Southern tradition, and this not only sets the stage for the story but also enriches it throughout the novel.

But atmosphere isn't everything. For example,
Saundra Mitchell's Shadowed Summer (a novel similar to Sea Change in its style) is also brilliantly atmospheric, but the atmosphere takes center stage, at the expense of plot and character. In reading Sea Change, on the other hand, I enjoyed not only the language but also the development of the relationships Miranda, the protagonist, has with the other characters in the story, most prominently with her mother.

I'll admit to becoming annoyed with Miranda as the novel wore on; she is characterized as being scientific and logical, but this characterization is laid on slightly too thick at times and makes Miranda difficult to like. But by the end, I felt as though Miranda had grown and become less judgmental and more open-minded.

My biggest issue with the novel is Miranda's relationship with Leo. As Jess so eloquently put it last night over flourless chocolate waffle, we might be a little old for the typical romances depicted in YA, which go from zero-to-true-love far too quickly for my taste. I like to see a relationship truly develop, not magically pop into being, and I found Miranda's insta-love with Leo hard to believe. That said, Friedman writes some lovely scenes between Miranda and Leo, and I appreciate that she doesn't tie their storyline into a neat bow at the end.

Overall, Sea Change is one of the best YA novels I've read this year, and I'd highly recommend it. Of course, now I really, really want to go to Selkie Island (if it existed), but no more vacation for me this summer. Oh, well.

28 July 2009

TGHPR-R 2009: The Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)

It's so hard for me to criticize any Harry Potter book -- they all have such a special place in my heart and always will -- but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the weakest of the series for me, both in my initial reading and the more recent reread. In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, Chamber of Secrets is the book I either (a) skimmed through or (b) skipped when rereading the series each time a new book came out.

I actually liked Chamber of Secrets more on the reread, especially since I was rereading it on the heels of Sorcerer's Stone -- and reading it while on vacation with family friends in beautiful, peaceful Ohio, sitting outside and drinking a glass of my favorite pinot gris. Setting makes a serious difference in the reading experience, doesn't it?

I think my real problem with Chamber of Secrets is the beginning; though I love Ron and the twins' flying car rescue of Harry from his uncle-imposed exile (and Mrs. Weasley's reaction when the boys -- with Harry in tow -- return in the early morning after having been gone all night), I'm not a big fan of the flying car in general. That Ron and Harry would jump into the car when they can't get through the barrier to Platform 9 3/4 instead of, you know, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Weasley to return, struck me as a device, and a forced one, at that. Rowling makes up for it by making Ron's wand (broken in the inevitable flying car crash) a major plot point as well as by bringing the flying car (now gone feral) back later in the book, but the illogical flight to Hogwarts and the trouble the boys get into is maybe my least favorite moment in the entire series.

There are some truly fantastic moments in Chamber of Secrets, though, like:
  • Harry's discovery of and subsequent dive into the diary of Tom Riddle -- Rereading all of the scenes in which Tom Riddle makes an appearance is fascinating, especially when you couple those scenes with Dumbledore's memories of Tom from Half-Blood Prince. Over the course of seven books -- and you really have to put all seven together to get this -- Rowling develops a complete, complex portrait of Voldemorte.
  • The introduction to Dumbledore's phoenix, Fawkes -- Harry first meets Fawkes when Fawkes is at the end of his phoenix cycle; he burns up before Harry's eyes and is reborn from his own ashes. It is a beautiful, beautiful moment.
Side story: I teach ninth graders, and every March we read Fahrenheit 451, which is my favorite book to teach, bar none. Anyway, if you've read Fahrenheit, you know that the phoenix plays an important role in the story, for its representation of both fire and rebirth. When the phoenix is first introduced at the beginning of the novel (as a symbolic patch on the firemen's uniforms), I always ask, "So what is a phoenix? What does it do? Why is it significant?" And the students always know the answers, because they've most of them read Harry Potter, and they remember Fawkes.
  • Hagrid's backstory -- I'm actually not a huge Hagrid fan, but Rowling teases a lot of Hagrid's past in Sorcerer's Stone, and I like that she follows up with it. His expulsion from Hogwarts (at Tom Riddle's hands, no less) is very in character, and while I think his bumbling gets old at times, I like how Rowling uses him to introduce many of the creature characters throughout the series (Aragog, Buckbeak, etc.).
  • Gilderoy Lockhart -- The first time I read Chamber of Secrets, I hated Gilderoy Lockhart so much, but on rereading -- well, I still think he's a jerk, but I absolutely love how Rowling characterizes him. I laughed through every one of his scenes, especially his wizard duel with Snape (Snape! *heart*), and when he gets his comeuppance at the end, well, no fate was more richly deserved.
But while I loved the parts, the whole is ultimately a little clunky and the climax a little too convenient. Too, though Ginny Weasley plays a huge role in the climax, she is barely a presence in the book. As usual, Rowling does an excellent job in foreshadowing not only the resolution of the mystery of The Chamber of Secrets but also future installments in the series, but I felt that I was picking up on clues because I've read the entire series already; a lot of the foreshadowing is either too subtle or too "pay attention! This is important!"

Still, The Chamber of Secrets is a solid second book and starts to move out of YYA (young young adult) into YA nicely -- just in time for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is one of the strongest books in the series and which I am super-excited to reread, because Prisoner of Azkaban is when things really start getting good. And by good, I mean darker. Well, and good. I think Rowling hits her stride with PoA, but I'll save that for another post.

27 July 2009

Best Reads of 2009 (So Far) Part II

Again, thank goodness for Goodreads, without which I would never be able to keep track of what I've read. Sometimes I pick up a book that sounds interesting and, about halfway through it, I think, "Wow, the story is so familiar!" And it is familiar, because I've read it before.

Anyway, on to #s 6-10 in my favorite reads of 2009:

6. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (NF)
My brother gave me this book for Christmas, and I devoured it immediately. Gladwell explores success and where it comes from, and it truly makes you think about luck versus hard work versus innate talent. The chapters on Korean pilots and Japenese school culture were especially fascinating, and whether you agree with Gladwell's hypothesis -- that success is a lot about luck (where geographically, in what month, in what family, in what year you were born) -- or not, Outliers offers food for thought.

7. Shadow Kiss (Vampire Academy #3) by Richelle Mead (YA)
I read the first Vampire Academy book (titled, appropriately enough, Vampire Academy) a year ago February, and though I liked it, I wasn't wowed by it. I gobbled up the second in the series, Frostbite, but Shadow Kiss topped both. This is a series that (unlike some -- *cough* Twlight *cough*) only improves as it continues; I love Mead's characters, her world-building, and most importantly, her fearlessness -- she doesn't hesitate to force her characters, especially the protagonist, Rose, to face tragedy. The end of Shadow Kiss, for example, was heartbreaking, but necessary, and it offers intriguing possibilities for book four, Blood Promise, which comes out at the end of August. Huzzah!

8. Fade by Lisa McMann (YA)
I loved Wake, the first book in the Dream Catchers series, but while I feel Wake was mostly about character and concept development, Fade (book #2) adds real danger, both in Janie's work with the police department and in her dream-education, where she discovers that her power comes with a life-altering price. The scene at the end of the book, when Janie goes "undercover" at a party to discover whether a teacher has been inappropriately involved with his students, is a nail-biter, and I just adore Janie's relationship with Cabe. I just discovered that this is actually a trilogy (yay!) and that the last book (boo!) will be out in February 2010 (yay!).

9. The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (YA)
I already expounded on The Chosen One in my beach reading post, but again -- this was an affecting, beautifully developed story that pulled no punches and had me speeding through to the conclusion, anxious about Kyra's fate. Seriously, this is a must-read.

10. The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart (YA)
Can I take a moment to mention my deep and abiding love for E. Lockhart? I just adore her. I've read nearly all of her books, and I've never been disappointed by a single one. In fact, if I were making my list of top 10 YA books I've ever read, Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks would be in my top 5. Anyway, what I love about The Boyfriend List is Ruby Oliver, the protagonist and first-person narrator. Her voice is just so engaging that I would totally want to be friends with her (if she existed).

Oh, books are so awesome. Way awesomer than the work I'm currently avoiding...

23 July 2009

Best Reads of 2009 (So Far)

I'm inspired (as usual) by Jess, after a discussion on Tuesday night about the best books we've read so far this year. Jess detailed hers on her blog, and since I can never talk about/think about/read books too much, I've decided to follow suit (with some help from my Goodreads page, because I honestly can't remember all of the books I've read so far this year, and I don't want to leave out anything good).

10 Best '09 Reads (January - June)

1. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (NF)
The top spot definitely belongs to World War Z, however; besides the fact that zombies are my new disaster movie, Brooks does an incredible job in detailing the zombie war from many different perspectives and in easily distinguishable voices -- no mean feat. Plus, the chapter on the dogs who worked with the military to locate and destroy zombies? Totally made me cry.

2. Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughn (graphic novel)
Jess's husband, Steve, gave me the first book in this series for my birthday last year, and I loved it. So I asked for volumes 2-10 for Christmas, and my awesome parents gave me all of them. What I love about Y: The Last Man is, first and foremost, the last man himself, Yorick Brown, who is simultaneously hysterical and heartbreaking. Actually, that phrase could really sum up the series as a whole. And the last pane of the story -- what an iconic, and entirely appropriate, image to end on.

3. The Troy trilogy: Lord of the Silver Bow, Shield of Thunder, Fall of Kings by David Gemmell (historical fiction)
I've already talked about the Troy trilogy ad nauseum, but that's because it is awesome!

4. Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (YA)
Jess knows me so well -- she gave me this end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it YA book (and its companion novel) for Christmas, and wow. Just wow. Miranda's voice is amazingly written, and Pfeffer doesn't pull any punches: when the moon is knocked closer to Earth by a meteor, there really are no astronauts headed up to put it back on course. I love that Pfeffer is relatively unflinching about how people react to disaster on a global scale.

5. Pledged by Alexandra Robbins (NF)
I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by Robbins' in-depth look at sorority life, and I truly could not put this book down. I especially like how Robbins turns what is, by itself, the engrossing story of a year in the life of four sorority girls into a call for Panhellenic reform.

Well, I've managed to cover my top five and expended all of my remaining energy. I'll do the other half of my top ten tomorrow!

18 July 2009

The Great Harry Potter Reread -- Book #1: The Socerer's Stone

At the end of the school year, I asked my AP students for summer reading recommendations, and they gave me a lot of good suggestions (erm, none of which I've actually read yet).

Right before the bell rang, one of them said, "Ms. Reeder, you should spend the summer rereading the Harry Potter books."

"Now that," I replied, "is a great idea."

It's taken me a few weeks to get around to it, though, as I've had a bit of a pile to get through first (as I've mentioned already on this blog, Jess tends to lend me must-reads), but last week I finally picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for what is probably the tenth time since it first came out.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling is a really lovely introduction to the series proper, and it does all the things a good book one should do and does them particularly well. I remember, even in reading this book for the first time, how interested I was in the story and, perhaps more importantly, in the wizarding world that Rowling brings to life so well.

What I Liked:

We meet many (though not all) of the major characters in Sorcecer's Stone: Harry, of course, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Profs. Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Snape, Hagrid, and the Dursleys. While the characterization of the Dursleys is a little over-the-top, it does help the reader understand the distance between Harry and his only remaining family immediately, and ultimately why Harry is so willing to essentially leave the Muggle world behind, despite spending his entire life in it.

I especially like how Hermione is developed, though; after having read the entire series (a few times), I forgot how annoying Hermione is at eleven, and it makes me appreciate even more how much she grows up in later books, thanks in large part to her friendship with Harry and Ron (who do some growing up of their own, of course). I also loved the characterization Snape, but then, I *heart* him in all his greasy git-ness.

I was surprised how quickly the plot moved, but then, I'm used to books 4-7, which are probably three times as long as Sorcerer's Stone. On rereading, I appreciate how much Rowling fits into a relatively short piece as well as how nicely she hints at the various revelations that come at the end (when I first read this, I was shocked when Harry came to the last room and was faced with Quirrell). It also seems clear that Rowling had a plan from the beginning, as there are a number of moments that foreshadow what is to come in later installments.

And then there are the myriad aphorisms that come out of Sorecer's Stone -- more, perhaps, than any of the other Harry Potter books. Two key examples:

  • "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself."
  • "To the well-ordered mind, death is simply the next great adventure."

Both from Dumbledore, natch. And speaking of...

What Needs Work:

I was disappointed in the small role that Dumbledore played, though this probably makes sense in the grand scheme of things, because it isn't until after the incident with the Sorcerer's Stone that it becomes clear that Harry is in constant danger.

I also think Ron isn't nearly as well-developed as some of the other major characters, and, as much as I come to love him later, I found myself shaking my head and wondering what, exactly, Harry sees in Ron to become such good friends with him.

Sorcerer's Stone is also geared more toward YYA (young young adult) whereas the later books tend to skew older. I don't know if it's fair to complain about this, though, as Harry is himself a tween, but the style of writing and storytelling, though compelling, doesn't stay with me the way the later books do.

But overall, Sorcerer's Stone is actually better than I remember and a truly wonderful beginning to the Harry Potter series. Now on to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which may be my least favorite of the series. We'll see how it holds up this time around.

13 July 2009

She Likes... David Gemmell When He Lays Off the Fantasy

Lion of Macedon
I adored David Gemmell's Troy trilogy, which used fantasy elements sparingly and focused instead on character development, strong plotting, and historical detail, so when my father lent me Lion of Macedon, I was looking forward to another glimpse into Greek legend-turned-history. But Lion of Macedon tries to walk the line between historical fiction and fantasy, and in doing so, fails to fully embody either genre, leaving me a little confused and disappointed.

The story takes place a hundred years after the
Battle of Thermopylae, at a time when the Greek city-states fought for power amongst themselves and Persia utilizes this rivarly to prevent the city-states from banding together as a unified Greece and potential rival. The protagonist, Parmenion, a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian, is raised in Sparta, but because he is only a "half-blood," he is shunned by his peers and underestimated by those who should be training him to be a Spartan soldier. The discrimination Parmenion faces kindles his desire for revenge against the people and ideals of Sparta, as he eventually travels to Thebes, among other places, to use his gift for strategy against the Spartans.

Like Gemmell's Troy trilogy, Lion of Macedon follows multiple characters, and I became attached to a number of them, like Mothac, Parmenion's manservant and friend, and Thetis, the priestess of Aphrodite who saves Parmenion's life at one point. Too, Gemmell has no compunction about killing characters off, but I don't really mind this; I think it adds an urgency and realism to the story that fits well with the bloodthirsty time period in which the book is set.

I also enjoyed the fact that, though Parmenion is clearly the protagonist, the narrative point of view shifts frequently, and other interesting characters become more prominent than they might have otherwise. One example of this is
Phillip of Macedon, around whom the last third of the book truly revolves -- we learn a great deal about how Phillip, at age fourteen, saves not only himself but his older brother from possible assassination, but also how he eventually rises to power and, with Parmenion's help, establishes Macedonia as a city-state to be reckoned with.

(I think Gemmell uses this technique more successfully in the Troy trilogy, either because he has three books in which to extend various characters' arcs or because he had simply matured as a writer -- I think Lion of Macedon was written ten or so years before Lord of the Silver Bow, the first Troy book.)

Ultimately, however, Lion of Macedon loses its power because it is more fantasy than historical fiction (or maybe it's both -- historical fantafiction?), and for me, this robs the historical plot -- which is engrossing in and of itself -- of its intensity.

Despite the truly interesting story of Parmenion and his travels, the true premise of the story is this: a seeress named Tamis has foreseen the "dark birth," the birth of a child who will grow to be a merciless man and, with his maurading armies, bring darkness to Greece. Tamis believes that Parmenion plays a key role in preventing the dark birth (or protecting Greece, should the child be born), and she shapes his life toward exactly that by using her powers to make people hate him, deprive him of his one true love, and so on.

Lion of Macedon is well-written with strong plot and characters as well as a concrete connextion to history, but the conclusion, which relies on a prophecy, the Lord of Chaos (I think?), Aristotle the philosopher-turned-magus, and fantastical journey through Hades to rescue the spirit of an unborn child, falls flat.

The final chapter does set up the sequel nicely (ten points if you know who the dark child of the prophecy -- Philip of Macedon's son -- is!), and I'll definitely read it, though perhaps with a little less enthusiasm than I began Lion of Macedon.

10 July 2009

Lazy! Lazy! Lazy!

Even though alphabetizing and organizing these evaluations is boring, I am fascinated by how many managers/administrators simply copy and paste comments, just replacing the employee's name from evaluation to evaluation. Seriously, it's ridiculous and embarassing and totally unprofessional.

Okay, I wasn't going to comment further on this, but come on. It's lazy. I get that most managers/administrators have a number of evaluations to complete. I get that it's time consuming and not a lot of fun, especially if you have to find a diplomatic way to offer criticism. (Trust me, I know. I struggle with this every time I grade student papers.) But the whole copy/paste/find/replace thing cheapens the evaluation process and shows a lack of respect for the employees who are being evaluated.

I mean, I write college recommendations for up to twenty-five students a year, and it takes weeks to complete, but every single recommendation is original and focused specifically on the student in question. Because I care about the kids and I want colleges to know how individually amazing each of them are. Evaluations should be the same way and should show a familiarity with each employee's specific strengths and areas for growth.

Two summers of working with evaluations coupled with my experiences (some positive, the majority negative) with various administrators over the years has -- ye gods -- gotten me to this point: I might want to go into administration some day. Because teachers need administrations that will stand up for them and in whom they trust. And I kind of think I could be that.

(Wow, I can't believe I just wrote that. This is a major personal policy change. We'll have to see if this spark is a fire by the time I finish my master's in who-knows-how-many years.)

The other (less personally revealing) thing I have discovered is how many parents out there don't care about the laughability of their kids' names and and possible (likely) (assured) teasing that said kids must have received on the elementary school playgrounds.

Here is a sampling:

  • Last name: Reeks. This is just sad, and probably not the parents' fault. But can you imagine if your last name was "Reeks"? Your name is, without revision, a tool for people like WS, whose favorite insult is "You stink."
  • Last name: Williams. First name: William. Did his parents have absolutely no imagination?
  • Last name: Racey. What don't you name your child if your last name is Racey? Especially because your last name is Racey? That would be Tracy.

Isn't that sad? And, at the same time, really funny? Don't judge me: I have to entertain myself somehow.

09 July 2009

It's the End of the World as We Know It (Except Not Really)

Love me, love my vices: I am an unabashed disaster movie fanatic. All I ask for is a good, old-fashioned natural disaster -- be it a new Ice Age, a dying Earth's core, a no-longer-dormant volcano awakening under the streets of L.A. -- some decent special effects, and possibly a tidal wave, and I am one happy camper.

So imagine my delight when, three weeks ago, I saw a preview for Impact, a (good, old-fashioned) TV miniseries about an asteroid that hits the moon and sends it not only out of its orbit but headed towards Earth! Appointment TV! I curled up with Q on the Sunday of Impact's premiere and watched a fairly expendable cast of characters deal with the possible end of humanity!

(Except not really, because does the world ever really end in movies like this? I mean, someone always comes up with a brilliant plan that involves sending people into space and ends with a room full of cheering scientists and civilians, brought together by circumstances but now forever bonded -- like a microcosm of the world! -- by the close call.)

But Impact was fantastic. By which I mean fantastically bad. I'm really not sure what I liked best about it:
  1. The "romance" between Alex and Maddie, which never went further than a kind of forced hug.
  2. The crotchety old grandfather, as played by James Cromwell, who hits a guy (who is, admittedly, threatening Cromwell's grandchildren) with a cane and then promptly drops from a heart attack brought on by the exertion of -- smacking a guy with a cane?
  3. That once Crotchety Grandpa dies from said heart attack, his grandkids catch a ride to D.C. with the guy who was previously menacing them. They get into a car with a stranger who then gives them candy.
  4. The fact that, in part two of the miniseries, Natasha Henstridge's role is reduced to reaction shots in which she basically stands with her mouth open. Seriously. That's what she does for two hours.

But I think my favorite part was this dialogue at the end of part one:

President of the United States: So... what
happens if the moon hits Earth?

Maddie: Um, there won't be an

Oh, Mr. President. Obviously you will not be the one developing the magical electromagnetic plan to get the brown drawf out of the moon's core and set the moon back in its regular orbit (or send it out into space? In two pieces? Or put its two pieces in a new, not-dangerous orbit around Earth? I don't know; there were a number of plot points I was not clear about at the end).

Anyway, the other day I discovered that NBC is doing a miniseries starting this Sunday called Meteor, which is about -- wait for it -- a meteor! Which is three times the size of Mount Everest and heading straight for Earth! I can't imagine what the characters will do to stop it, but I'm thinking it might involve astronauts...

07 July 2009

Oh, Work

Before I left for the beach, I worked so hard to finish everything so my desk would be clear when I returned from my super-fantastic vacation.

This is what my desk looked like when I came in yesterday morning:

What did I do before I had hundeds of evaluations to sort and alphabetize?

(I turned these haphazard piles into three organized stacks within two hours, but seriously! Two hours! I'm so earning my paycheck this summer.)

06 July 2009

How I Spent My Summer (Beach) Vacation, Part I

In December, my parents rented a condo on Ocean City's boardwalk for the first week of July, and I have been looking forward to it ever since. And now I have been and gone! My summer vacation is over! :(

I'd like to say that I did some amazing things, like parasailing or risking my life on the Slingshot (um, hell and no), but instead, I just read. I read a lot -- on the beach, at the pool, on the balcony, in the car. I think it works out to a book a day -- I actually had to go to the used bookstore, which was luckily just a block away, on Wednesday to buy a few more books because I had almost finished the ones I brought with me.

Here's how it breaks down:
  • Monday: The Chosen One (Carol Lynch Williams) -- Jess lent me this one. I've gotten super into sci-fi YA, but The Chosen One is realistic contemporary YA. It was difficult to read at times because I was so anxious for Kyra, the main character, but ultimately I loved it.

  • Tuesday: Troy: Fall of Kings (David Gemmell) -- I had really been looking forward to Fall of Kings because it's the last in Gemmell's Troy trilogy; my dad read it first and lent it to me a week before we left for the beach, and I managed to save it, which is kind of amazing for me, as I'm a "read it if you have it" kind of person. Anyway, the conclusion of the trilogy definitely did not disappoint, and I wish Gemmell were still alive, because there were characters who definitely deserved books of their own.

  • Wednesday: The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) -- This was a reread, because The Hunger Games is our freshmen summer reading this year. I first read this right after it came out (Jess lent it to me), and it became perhaps my favorite sci-fi YA of all time. I bought my own copy before vacation and, when I had finished it on Wednesday, I lent it to my brother, WS, because he had run out of books to read, too.

(I'll be honest: my motives in lending WS The Hunger Games were not entirely altruistic. I wanted to find out if the book appealed to guys as well as girls; in the spring, when the ninth grade team talked about making The Hunger Games the summer reading book, I predicted that, though it has a female protagonist, the guys would gravitate to the action of the plot. And, yays! WS loves it. He was about two thirds of the way through it when we left on Sunday, and on the way home, he apparently recapped the story for his girlfriend, Dee, and asked her to read him the read as he drove.)

  • Thursday: Eight Cousins (Louisa May Alcott)
  • Friday: Rose in Bloom (Louisa May Alcott) -- These books were both Mason's purchases, I read Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom, when I was younger and really liked both. Upon rereading, I still enjoyed the novels, though I found them a bit preachy at times (I was about to say outdated, but as they were written in the 19th century, that seems unfair). Still, Alcott's various characterizations of the cousins are fun and distinctive, and Rose definitely picks the right guy at the end of Rose in Bloom.

  • Saturday: The Demon's Lexicon (Sarah Rees Brennan) -- Another Jess-lend! I enjoyed Rees Brennan's world-building, though I was not particularly fond of Nick, the protagonist (there are actually deliberate, author-intended reasons why, I think, but it made the reading hard going at times). The story is great, though, and other characters -- Alan and Jamie especially -- make up for Nick's stand-offishness.

  • Sunday: Lion of Macedon (David Gemmell) -- I started this on Saturday night, when I realized that I had read everything else and my father kindly let me borrow it. It takes place in Greece about one hundred years after the Battle of Thermopylae and follows Parmenion, a half-Spartan, half-Macedonian boy who comes of age as the various Greek city-states battle for control. I wasn't sold on the book, but once I started reading, I couldn't put it down, and I spent most of yesterday (after picking up Q from the kennel and unpacking) engrossed in reading it on the couch.

So once more, my vacation can be summed up by what I read! I did other things, too, but I've been shirking the alphabetizing and probably ought to try to earn some of my paycheck this week.

26 June 2009

Z is for Zzzzzz

So my summer job.

It has so many good points, like the flexibility -- I work hourly, so if I need to take off (like I am next week for the beach), I can just... take off. I don't have to make sub plans, I don't have to fill out a leave slip. Also, as I mentioned before (but can't mention enough, apparently, because it's such a huge thing for me), I can leave the office if I want to. Go to lunch at the deli, grab coffee from Starbucks, go to the bathroom -- whenever I want. Oh, my God, it is such a delight. Also? The people are soooo nice and friendly, and I can play music at my desk while I work.

But it is so boring. I have spent the last 4 days alphabetizing. That's it. Sort files alphabetically by school, sort files alphabetically by teacher within each school, check off every file received, take files to the file room.

I mean, I love letters as much as the next English teacher, but I'm getting to the point where I am losing my sense of the alphabet. You know, like when you say a word too many times and it starts to sound completely foreign.

Today, I realized about twenty schools in that I had totally forgotten that Q comes after P, and I had to go back and re-alphabetize.

I'm trying to finish as much as I can before the weekend, because on Sunday I head to THE BEACH for a week (yays!), and I'd love to leave a clear desk, but every time I think I'm close to finishing, the mails comes and I suddenly have hundreds more to do.

And I hate to think what my desk will look like when I come back from the beach...

Ooooh, I need a quick Moment of Zen:

>sigh< I love you, new turquoise sandals.

24 June 2009

A Good, Old-Fashioned Shoe Swap

My mom is five million different kinds of awesome, but let me prove it with the following example:

Back in February, I bought a pair of red patent leather peep-toes with a slight wedge heel. I wore them approximately twice before I realized that they were giving me blisters because they are too small (they felt so right when I tried them on in the store! I have learned the virtues of walking around in shoes a bit before purchase, trust me).

Then last month, my mom and I went shopping at Macy's, where my mom bought a pair of flat turquoise thong sandals with this cool multi-colored ring detail and the same slight wedge heel. She wore them to work and realized that they didn't have enough support for her (she broke her ankle last fall, and she has to be super careful about the shoes she wears).

I realized, last night as I was trying to decide what to wear to work today: my mom wears a size slightly smaller than mine, she wants a pair of red flats, and her turquoise sandals would go amazingly with the dress I wanted to wear today.

So I called her last night and said, "Why don't you bring your sandals in tomorrow, and I'll bring my flats, and we'll trade!"

And that is exactly what we did. She loves the flats (and says that they're comfortable enough to wear all day), and the sandals do indeed look great with my dress.

Mine are turquoise, not dark blue, but you can see how cute these sandals are:Again, how awesome is it that my mom has good style sense so we can do things like switch shoes at work?

23 June 2009

She Likes... Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1)

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is the first novel in what is truly my favorite YA trilogy. I picked it up on a whim at a Books-A-Million a few years ago, and I devoured it, then was so excited to find out that that sequel, Rebel Angels, had just been published.

Gemma Doyle spends the first sixteen years of her life in India, but when her mother dies mysteriously on Gemma's sixteenth birthday -- which happens to be the day Gemma has her first "vision" -- Gemma is shipped off to Spence, a finishing school for aristocratic young ladies. There, she is plagued by continuing visions of a young girl and a creeping shadow monster, as she navigates a brutal girl world and deals with culture shock.

Gemma soon discovers the diary of Mary Dowd, who attended Spence years before with her best friend Sarah and who, upon her sixteenth birthday, was initiated into the Sisterhood, a group of women with magical powers and access to the otherworldly Realms. But something happened -- something terrible -- and the Realms were closed, the Headmistress dead, and Mary gone from Spence.

Eventually Gemma, along with her frenemies Felicity, Ann, and Pippa, find their way into the Realms and discover that the past -- Gemma's mother's death, the burning of Spence's East Wing, the disappearance of Mary Dowd -- is not far behind.

A Great and Terrible Beauty takes place in the late 19th century, and Gemma is a fish out of water: she is spunky, sarcastic, and independent, and she doesn't want to conform to society's rules for women. I adore Gemma, and I love the supporting characters as well, warts and all.

The best part about A Great and Terrible Beauty is that it is the first in a trilogy, followed by Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing. The worst part? The trilogy eventually ends. Its conclusion is faithful to the characters and the overall narrative, and it is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

I was so upset when I finished The Sweet Far Thing -- not because I didn't love it, but because it was over. However, I do appreciate it when an author doesn't drag out his or her series but instead has an endpoint that makes sense and makes it clear that the author has planned meticulously from the beginning. See also: J. K. Rowling.

So I'm excited for Bray's next book -- I read in Entertainment Weekly last week that her next book, Going Bovine, is coming out in September, and I can't wait! Now I have two September releases to look forward to (the first is, of course, Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games). In the meantime, I think I'll re-read A Great and Terrible Beauty...

Returned to Life (Again)

Two and a half years have passed since my last post and... not much has changed.

Well, that's not entirely true. I

(1) moved: about a mile away from my previous apartment;

(2) transfered to a new school: after three years of dying a slow death in my previous school, I finally took a leap and did my research, revised my resume, sent it out to the (few) schools I was interested in, and -- lucky me! -- got a job at my first choice school (let's call it Foreston).

This was maybe the best decision I've ever made. Seriously. I had an absolutely fantastic year, the English department is wonderful and supportive, the staff morale is high and carefully tended to by the administration, and my students were totally awesome. At the end of the school year, a lot of people asked me whether I was glad I made the leap and came to Foreston, and my answer was always, "God, yes!"

And I have nothing if not impeccable timing. If I had waited another year, I'd be stuck at my old school (let's call it Unhappysville), because economic times being what they are, the school system is short on money, and thus short on jobs. A number of my former colleagues would love to escape Unhappysville, but there just aren't positions available.

Anyway, yay for good timing, and yay for returning to my much (much much much much) neglected blog.

The school year ended this past Friday, and now I'm at my summer job in Human Resources, which is kind of fabulous because it's not brain-heavy, I don't have to take it home with me, and I can leave the office for lunch and a midafternoon coffee at the Starbucks across the street (I wonder if only teachers can really understand what a treat this is).

Right now I'm in the midst of alphabetizing files, which is mindless but absolutely welcome at the moment. I'll get frustrated and bored within two weeks, but at the moment? Mindless = bliss!