Amanda Gates
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A Musings - December 2007

I know I've been a little heavy on the Harry already this month. However, when it comes to naming my top book of the year - no contest. My mom started me on Harry Potter during Christmas 1999 when she gave me the first three books. I’d heard a bit about this Harry Potter character, but I had no idea what I was in for. I think I read all three books during that semester break. The next 8 years were spent waiting. Waiting for Goblet of Fire – which wasn’t too long of a wait, waiting an excruciating three years for Order of the Phoenix, waiting for Half-Blood Prince, and then, this past July, the wait was over. The mailman delivered Deathly Hollows at 4 p.m. Saturday and I finished reading Sunday at 5 p.m. (Unlike other readers, I did take a break to sleep, eat, etc.)

When you’ve been reading a series you find so magical for nearly 10 years, and you know it’s going to come to end, you have high expectations. My high expectations were met – surpassed even. The story of Harry Potter came full circle (an Epilogue even!) and I was happy with it. The magic world is at war, and Harry, Ron and Hermione are on special assignment from Professor Dumbledore to slowly kill Lord Voldermort by destroying the Horcruxes that contain pieces of his soul. It was odd not to be in the halls of Hogwarts with the students, instead traveling to the ends of the continent with the three wizards. The death toll increased exponentially in this book, each bringing tears to my eyes and gasps to my lips. But I had to remember that these wizards were fighting, and dying, for freedom.

And that’s the thing with the Harry Potter series, especially the last three books. The parallels to our real world are hard to miss: death, oppression, hatred, discrimination, dirty politicians, war, and denial, but also love, strength, truth and hope. There are so many wonderful things about the series - getting millions of kids to learn the “magic” of reading, a struggling writer discovering her dream and never losing her integrity - that I could go on and on. But, either I’m preaching to the choir, or those are discoveries a new reader has to make on his or her own. These books will be around for generations though, and I’m anxious to see the stories be enjoyed all over again by those close to me.

[Fun Fact: J.K. Rowling recently hand-wrote and illustrated seven copies of one final Harry book, The Tales of Beetle the Bard. Six of those she gave as gifts to those close to the series, and one was auctioned off this month for nearly $4 million (all of which goes to a children’s charity). See stories here and here.]

Happy New Year!

Posted: Fri, 12/28/2007 - 02:56 | Comments: 1

I listened to the second part of The Leaky Cauldron's Jo Rowling podcast today (what an awesome job those Leaky creators have!). It was a good way to start the morning - listening to her voice makes me happy. Her love for these books shines through. She really believes in them, which I find so special in an author. I know many probably feel the same way about their own books, but I'm sure there are plenty who don't, too.

In this edition of PotterCast, Rowling talked about the secrets she had to share with Alan Rickman before they started filming any of the movies, so he could indeed nail Snape the way he does.

She makes mention of the new Harry Potter theme park that's in the works. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to the movies, actually asked her permission first, and she's had a huge amount to do with the creation and the look of the amusement park. (It's nice to hear about movie studios being respectful of writers...) "It's as close as you'll ever get to actually walking into Hogsmeade, "she says. While I'm not huge into amusement parks, I can only imagine how cool it would be for kids. (Who am I kidding? I'd have to go if I had the chance.)

They discussed the evolution of wands in the books, especially in Deathly Hallows when the elder wand becomes so important. Rowling says that while most wands have a sense of loyalty to its owner, the elder wand only knows strength, thus falling under the power of anyone who rightfully wins it - and usually into the wrong hands. Mistaking the desire to murder as power is Voldermort's biggest problem.

They also talked about the documentary that was made during the last year of Rowling writing the Deathly Hallows, on tour, at the book's launch, her traveling back to the haunts where she used to write and much more. It airs in the U.K. on Sunday, Dec. 30. When it'll be available here is still unknown.

Definitely worth a listen, but listen to Part I, first.

Posted: Thu, 12/27/2007 - 02:28 |

I've been eagerly waiting for Christmas and other December occasions, because I knew I would get a stack of books to read in the new year. I wasn't disappointed, and, boy, am I excited! My list:

1. Pretty Little Mistakes, A Do-Over Novel, by Heather Mcelhatton (Thanks AG)

2. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman (Thanks MMLG)

3. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs (Thanks M&D;)

4. The Zookeeper's Wife, A War Novel, by Diane Ackerman

(4-7 Thanks to my other half)

5. The View From Mount Joy, by Lorna Landvik

6. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

7. The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta

I also have a B&N; gift card to spend, so I'm trying to decide what to buy between the many other books left on my wish list. And, we still have one more gift opening with my mother-in-law, so more books are possibly on the way! I hope the holidays brought everyone something new to read.

Posted: Wed, 12/26/2007 - 02:49 | Comments: 2

Note: Throughout the month of December, I’m going to post my Top 5 books of 2007. This does not mean these books were published in 2007, though some were. I just read them this year. Unless I just have to read a book ASAP, it’s cheaper to wait for the paperbacks.

What can I say about Khaled Hosseini’s second novel? I absolutely loved The Kite Runner, though it also disturbed me and broke my heart into a million pieces. I had the same reaction to A Thousand Splendid Suns. While The Kite Runner was about two young boys, and one of those boys as a young man, Splendid Suns is about two women and how their lives come together in Afghanistan. Mariam, a 15-year-old with her own tragic past, is forced to marry Rasheed, a 40-year-old man, and move with him to Kabul. When she proves infertile, unable to produce the son he wants, Rasheed treats her far worse than a woman should ever be treated.

Eighteen years after Mariam marries Rasheed, their 14-year-old neighbor Laila loses her family in the bombings of the civil unrest that’s been going on for years. Rasheed takes her in, and soon marries her as well. The story continues through the years as the women grow to trust each other and join forces against their abusive husband. (I don’t want to give anymore away.)

I think I connected with the two female characters a bit better than the two boys in The Kite Runner, but the fact that Hosseini, a man, could make me feel that way demonstrates his skill as a writer. Reading about the abuse these women suffered was very difficult. Learning more about the anti-Soviet jihad and Taliban control over Afghanistan throughout some 30 years is also hard to bear, especially when I know that the scenes of this novel come from truth. Situations in this book actually happened/happen to real women and children in this part of the world. Sometimes it’s hard for me to love a book that makes me so sad (for example, A Fine Balance, which I’ll write about another time), but I’m able to love this book.
Posted: Fri, 12/21/2007 - 06:52 |

Yesterday I downloaded the first of two podcasts with Jo Rowling from The Leaky Cauldron. Part II will be available next week sometime. If you're a Harry fan, this is definitely worth a listen. Besides just loving Rowling's voice and her humor, which makes her a joy to listen to, I loved the podcast with her for the back story she provided and the light she shed on some of the mysteries of the series. If you love the books as much as I do, you want to believe the story of Harry as "real." Rowling talks as if it is, and you can really tell that she has all the answers in her head.

How could Harry (sort of) be a horcrux? Why does Harry's scar burn when Voldermort gets close? What about Dumbledore's sexuality? Is she really going to write a Harry Potter Encyclopedia?!?

I can't wait for Part II. More about Harry Potter to come next week.

Posted: Wed, 12/19/2007 - 02:22 | Comments: 2

Author Diane Setterfield follows Maragret Lea, a young biographer (usually of people who are long gone) as she takes on her greatest assignment yet: writing the biography of the very ill, but still very much alive, world-famous novelist Vida Winter. Lea stays with Winter in her huge mansion, spending parts of each day listening to Winter tell her life story. Margaret’s main concern? How can she be sure Ms. Winter, someone who has never be forthcoming about her past, is telling the truth? Margaret takes it upon herself to investigate Ms. Winter’s past to prove the truth - and the truth she does find makes for a very interesting story indeed.

I loved this book for many reasons. First, there’s a mystery to it. You know straight away there’s a mystery – a ghost story, even – but you don’t know exactly what until the very end. I’m a pretty good judge of books, TV shows and movies, and can usually call the endings before most others. This book still held surprises for me in the end. Also, I loved the imagery in Setterfield’s writing. She really places the reader in the different settings. I loved the jumps between the past and the present, between Ms. Winter’s story of her life and the secrets Margaret unveils herself and about herself. For me, reading this book felt like I was reading the novels of long ago - it felt like literature, something completely different from the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you find on so many bookshelves today.

Posted: Mon, 12/17/2007 - 02:23 |

I just read this article on about how many local writers prefer to work at coffee shops, libraries, restaurants or bars, instead of at home. Some like the noise, some like the anonymity (amongst a crowd) and some just want the caffeine. As one writer put it, at home "you get bored with yourself." I can relate to this. Home has too many distractions, or the same-old scenery. When I was in college, I always preferred to study at Dunn Bros, then at home. Especially at a larger table at which I could spread out.

At the end of the article, the reporter gives a shout out to those local writers who participated in November's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo):

"According to the National Novel Writing Month's Word Count Scoreboard, Twin Cities NaNoWriMo participants out-produced every region in the world except for the much larger Seattle and Maryland (D.C. area) communities. A total of 13,059,537 words were generated by Twin Cities writers participating in last month's great novel-writing marathon, with an average of 28,267 words per novelist. The goal was 50,000, which means most participants didn't 'win.'"

I've always known we have a strong writing community here - the list goes on and on of well-known, local, published writers - but I love to hear of more, especially new or amateur writers.

Posted: Thu, 12/13/2007 - 07:48 | Comments: 2

Because the plot of this novel is so complicated and intertwined, I'm going to share the review from Publisher's Weekly:

Caldwell and Thomason's intriguing intellectual suspense novel stars four brainy roommates at Princeton, two of whom have links to a mysterious 15th-century manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This rare text (a real book) contains embedded codes revealing the location of a buried Roman treasure. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are inevitable, but Caldwell and Thomason's book is the more cerebral-and better written-of the two: think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco. The four seniors are Tom Sullivan, Paul Harris, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin. Tom, the narrator, is the son of a Renaissance scholar who spent his life studying the ancient book, "an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology." The manuscript is also an endless source of fascination for Paul, who sees it as "a siren, a fetching song on a distant shore, all claws and clutches in person. You court her at your risk." This debut novel's range of topics almost rivals the Hypnerotomachia's itself, including etymology, Renaissance art and architecture, Princeton eating clubs, friendship, steganography (riddles) and self-interpreting manuscripts. It's a complicated, intricate and sometimes difficult read, but that's the point and the pleasure. There are murders, romances, dangers and detection, and by the end the heroes are in a race not only to solve the puzzle, but also to stay alive. Readers might be tempted to buy their own copy of the Hypnerotomachia and have a go at the puzzle. After all, Caldwell and Thomason have done most of the heavy deciphering-all that's left is to solve the final riddle, head for Rome and start digging.

Authors Caldwell and Thomason are two long-time friends who wrote this book during their last semester at Princeton. I definitely would compare this book to The Da Vinci Code in that it has a mystery to solve, the mystery is complicated because few people know the secret cults/manuscripts/legends of which either book refers to - however, you can't help but be swept up in it. I think I enjoyed this book more than Da Vinci, if only because it had less hype along with it and it involves college students who are closer to my age. The ancient text and the secret puzzles within it are confusing, but the reader gets it after hanging in there for awhile. The book jumps back and forth in time, a ploy I actually liked; it adds to the suspense. Because the authors went to Princeton, I felt a lot of the school culture they wrote of was probably close to the truth (minus the murders and fraud, hopefully). And, I loved the ending.

Posted: Thu, 12/13/2007 - 02:44 |

This book, by Sara Gruen, tells the story of Jacob Jankowski. When we first meet Jacob, he’s an old man in a nursing home, who is realizing he has trouble remembering the people who come to visit him each Sunday afternoon. But when Jacob goes to sleep, he’s taken back (as are we the readers) some 70 years to the summer he ran away with the circus. Jacob spontaneously hops a railcar one night and finds himself aboard a circus train. A previous vet-in-training, Jacob becomes the caretaker of the circus animals.

Now, this circus is no Ringling Bros. Some shady actions take place daily, and the cruelty to animals claim that’s still charged to circuses these days is wholly felt. But Jacob meets Marlena and becomes infatuated. The rest of the book tells his story with the circus - the people he meets, the traveling, the acts, the food, the audiences and the sweetest pachyderm of which you've ever read.

This was one of those books that I wasn’t sure I’d like, so I postponed reading it. But then I kept seeing other people reading it, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did. Gruen paints such a brilliant picture of life on a circus train. She thoroughly researched the goings on of circus folk in the 1930s; she also received the rights to use some old photos throughout the book. These real photos only go to prove she’s not making much of this stuff up (bearded ladies, ball-balancing elephants, diseases caused by breaking the laws of prohibition). The story is mesmerizing and flows wonderfully.

Posted: Mon, 12/10/2007 - 02:15 | Comments: 1

Note: Throughout the month of December, I’m going to post my Top 5 books of 2007. This does not mean these books were published in 2007, though some were. I just read them this year. Unless I just have to read a book ASAP, it’s cheaper to wait for the paperbacks.

You can read my three previous posts about The Overachievers here, here and here. But in the end, I found this book extremely interesting. Armed with the knowledge it gave me on the subjects of school schedules, college admission processes, homework amounts and child development - along with the typical characteristics these overachievers possess - I see more and more cases in the people I meet in my everyday life, and a bit within myself. Anyone who is interested in this culture of students will enjoy this book. Robbins writes her books in a novel-like style making them very easy to consume.

Posted: Tue, 12/04/2007 - 02:34 |