Sunday, August 25, 2013

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J.K. Rowling

Sirius Black, one of the most notorious criminals in the wizarding world, has unbelievably managed to escape from Azkaban, the equally notorious wizarding prison, and everyone believes he is chasing after Harry. Of course, this doesn't bother Harry. What does bother Harry is the dementors, the guards at Azkaban who specialize in terrible memories, and who have been stationed outside Hogwarts for extra security. Every time the dementors get close to Harry, he hears the final moments before his parents died. Harry turns to Professor Lupin, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, to help him ward off the dementors. Lupin becomes a mentor for Harry over the course of the year, adding another link to the chain that connects Harry to the wizarding world and the parents he never knew. However, when Harry learns about Lupin's connection to his parents, Black's connection to his parents, and the connection between Lupin and Black, it radically shifts Harry's understanding of his past, alters his expectations for the future, and entirely changes how he fits into the whole complicated picture.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J.K. Rowling focuses on the question of good vs. evil, undermining the basic dichotomy that always tries to clearly delineate sides. Simpler versions of this question show up in Harry's rule breaking, sneaking around the castle, and deceiving teachers. Small rule-breaking doesn't seem to do much harm, but when considered in the context of how Harry's behavior resembles that of his father, and how his father died to save Harry, it takes on complexity to also become an issue of identity and relationships. The biggest question, though, is that of being good or evil towards other people, whether those tendencies can change over time, and what implications it has for everyone involved. It also draws attention to the importance of having supportive relationships when struggling with these issues. As always, Harry turns to Ron and Hermione, but he keeps finding more people to help him make sense of his lost past with every new revelation.

I usually tell people that the third Harry Potter is my favorite, and so far, that is still a true statement. I love this book because it introduces Lupin and Black, who are some of my favorite characters. You learn more about Harry's past (although I think that's true of every book). I also love it because this is when I started figuring out some of the astronomy connected to Harry Potter (Sirius is the brightest star in the Big Dog constellation). It also sits at the precarious tipping point before the series gets really dark and heavy - a brief preview of things to come. I can't pin down one thing that sets this book above all the other Harry Potter books, but I just love it. Well worth the read.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson

Part memoir, part historical commentary, "A Walk in the Woods" is the recounting of Bill Bryson's decision to hike the Appalachian Trail. Bryson includes all steps of this process, starting with instructions from his kids about purchasing gear ("Don't ask so many questions!"), to every last adventure with his amazingly incongruous trail mate, Stephen Katz, to their final steps on the trail. Along the way, Bryson delivers a well-researched history about the development and maintenance of the trail and sarcastic commentary about the trail, the woods, the conditions, and the antics of every person they encounter along the way. From bear scares in the middle of the night, to little luxuries of condensation on a can of soda, to the soul-searching that accompanies leaving goals incomplete (not a spoiler, you actually learn this pretty early in the book), Bryson finds a way of capturing his entire experience on the AT in a way that makes the reader laugh, groan, and sympathize with every last ache and pain.

"A Walk in the Woods" is pretty evenly split between Bryson's experience on the trail, the history of the trail, and Bryson's sarcastic commentary about everything that is happening during his adventures. Although it felt like information overkill at times, the background of the AT actually provide nice little interludes throughout the book. Bryson does his research - thoroughly - and despite presenting the information with a hefty dose of personal opinion, the history contributes helpful tidbits and anecdotes, as well as a more serious tone, to the overall story. The portions of the book that deal with Bryson's experiences and his musings on those experiences were much more...enthusiastic. They were quotable, laugh out loud hilarious, occasionally angry, and most often sarcastic. His writing is endlessly entertaining and relatable, but by the end of the book, I found myself growing impatient with his sarcasm. While his recounting of the AT was thoroughly enjoyable, there are times when he could have toned down his tongue in cheek style just a bit.

This is one of those books that grows in hilarity as you read it out loud to others, whether it's repeating a sentence or a series of paragraphs. I was dying laughing as I read parts of this book - just wait until you meet Mary Ellen. One of the things that was hard about reading this book, though, was that I read it while I was at camp, and I spent more of my time comparing my experience to his than I spent absorbing his stories. There were certain parts where this was beneficial though - who better to relate to the "gentle descent into squalor" than someone who hasn't showered for a week? This book is well worth the read, if for no other reason than to live vicariously through his experience. I'm not sure I would ever actually hike the AT (I'd never sleep at night for fear of the mountain man), but I can certainly enjoy reading about it.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

In his second year at Hogwarts, Harry knows what is waiting for him at school. Or at least he thinks he knows what is waiting for him. After a long summer of silence from his friends, Harry's solitude is interrupted by Dobby, the house elf, who tries to save Harry's life by preventing him from returning to Hogwarts. Despite the chaos that ensues from Dobby's "help," Harry again finds himself at Hogwarts and running into trouble in all the places he shouldn't be. As danger threatens his closest friends, Harry finds himself running headlong into jeopardy and all the mystery that surrounds it. The danger that threatens to close the school reveals some of the secrets of his beloved Hogwarts, and also some of the secrets about his own past. With no other option than to intervene, Harry finds himself facing demons both real and personal as he fights for all the things that have become his home - his school and his friends.

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" is the second of seven books in the Harry Potter series. Having established the world of witchcraft and wizardry thoroughly enough in her first novel, Rowling uses the second book as an opportunity to expand the depth of the storyline and characters involved in Harry's life. She fills in some - very few - of the blanks about Harry's past, giving just enough information to leave the reader eager for more, and adds layers of complexity to the wizarding world. New characters come with new spells and new dimension of what constitutes good and evil. Overall, Rowling does an excellent job at mirroring the world of Hogwarts - a second year (novel) brings new information, growth, and complexity to every facet of the story.

The "Harry Potter" books are in a league of their own in my opinion. Engrossing, original, and infallible, the books forever hold a special spot on the bookshelf in my heart. Read them. NOW.