Revisiting Harry Potter

Starting this winter, I re-read all of the Harry Potter series books, from Sorcerer’s Stone through Deathly Hallows. It had been quite a few years since I had read any of the books, and my recent recollections of the story line came by way of the films. So now I can see why my daughter, who was 5 when the first film came out and a teenager for the last one, complained so mightily about how much the films left out.

The books on second reading are so much richer than the films. But even if I hadn’t seen the films at all, the second reading would have been richer and here’s why: The story of Harry Potter, the boy who lived, who must do away with “He Who Must Not Be Named” or die himself, is incredibly complex. We meet more than 100 characters over the course of seven books. The three main characters evolve from childhood though puberty and teen years to become full-fledged adults and parents. I don’t know about you, but I read the books the first time at a very fast clip. For the first four books, I was competing with my husband for time alone with our sole copies. Later, our daughter was in the mix, too. So it would have been impolite to read at a leisurely pace. But doing that wasn’t good for retaining facts and details. On the second time through, I didn’t have to hurry. There were rewards in coming upon little tidbits in the early books that I, as a reader, knew would be revealed later as important clues or facts. These little items were just so much background detail the first time through. On second reading, though, they became little gems that the main characters hadn’t yet discovered.

The second grand tour also allowed me to see consistencies and inconsistencies along the way. Characters grew over the story arc but ultimately were painted with more and more layers enhancing their original varnish. I caught one major plot error, though, and I understand it’s been changed in later editions: When afterio-NEW-HARRY-POTTER-COVER-facebookmages of all the people Voldemort has killed are forced from his wand, they were to appear in order from most recent to first. But Harry’s father emerges BEFORE his mother, rather than the other way around, even though we know Lily Potter’s death was more recent (perhaps by just a few minutes) than James Potter’s.

Until now, I’ve never been much of a re-reader. I remember loving Wuthering Heights  when I read it as a college student, but 35 years later, it lost quite a bit of luster in the re-reading. I think I’m going to go back to some old favorites now and see what reading them again does. Will they be disappointing in hindsight or provide a richer experience because of what I bring the second time around?



Picking good books, or How to organize a book club: Part II

Book club members often take turns picking the next selection. When it comes around to my turn, I feel like a deer in the headlights. Sure I had a handful of titles I was thinking about just last week, but now that we’ve come to the end of our evening and someone says it’s my turn to pick, my mind draws a blank.
But the what of picking isn’t quite as important as the how. Or perhaps even the how NOT to pick. If I was the Book Club God, I would declare all hardback-only titles or current best-sellers off limits. I realize some people want to read the hottest new title, but if you’re meeting as often as once a month, a $25-$30 hardback each time really adds up. If the book selection is new, or a best-seller, it’s usually hard to find available copies in the public library. the waiting list at the library might run for many weeks past your appointed meeting to discuss the book. This is the reason that in my mother-daughter book club, we always try to pick books that have come out in paperback.
A fellow club member once asked me how to pick more interesting titles. It seems she and some others had been consulting the book reviews in People magazine for ideas only to find the books hadn’t gone over well in the book club. Perhaps a magazine whose articles are designed to be read in the time it takes to relieve oneself isn’t the best source for literary advice. Some better sources would be Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the New York Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, the NPRBooks website. Booksense, a free publication available in libraries or independent book stores, also provides some good ideas.
One club I visit on occasion picks its list by consensus and does it a year in advance. This is particularly helpful as the group includes people who come and go over the course of the year, so people know where to look to catch up. The list strives for balance, making sure to include fiction, non-fiction, biography/memoir, classics and young adult fiction. Each year the club asks for suggestions and hammers out the list together. I’ve never been to the book selection meeting, but the end result always includes quite a few titles I’m interested in reading.

How to organize a book club: Part I

Belonging to several book clubs has been an exercise in literacy and group dynamics for me. What I’ve learned is that there’s a book club to fit just about every person who enjoys reading. On the other hand, it’s hard to meet all your social and literary needs in a single book club, so it’s not a bad idea to belong to more than one. This is actually going to be the first in a series of posts on the subject of different kinds of book clubs, so right now I’ll introduce you to some of the clubs I attend.

Some clubs I’ve been associated with met for a brief period, some for years. Some have a theme and some are pretty much a free-for-all with book subjects. I have a club at work, a club for mothers, a club for daughters and mothers, a coed club with work and non-work people and soon I’ll be in a club at church. I even have a club I attend in another state when my vacation coincides with that club’s schedule.

My longest standing book club is a mother-daughter book club, formed when my daughter had just finished sixth grade. She’s a senior in high school now and the mothers are talking about continuing the club after our girls go off to school, and then welcoming them back during vacations. This has been an interesting journey as we made our way from middle-school readers to some very adult books. One of the reason I organized this club is that I wanted my daughter to have female models of intellectual literacy: her peers, the other mothers and me, authors and even the books’ characters. Too often the models they see in their required reading for school are boys and men, which sends a subliminal message that being smart and bookish isn’t for girls. We always have great stuff to eat, with people often coordinating the food they bring with themes in the book. We also split up — daughters usually do a craft for the first hour, and moms get to talk among themselves. Then we come together to talk about the book. We almost always meet on Fridays, to avoid school nights and taking over too much of the weekend.

Another club I’m in has had a hard time keeping its members, as they started out being all journalists, who tend to move away. In this club, we meet late: 9 p.m., when everyone’s finally out of work. And because we meet in a coffee shop that closes at 11, it doesn’t go too late. I like the interesting way this club approaches the books its reads. To avoid having the discussion be entirely dominated by the books’ ending, we read to the halfway point and meet the first time, then meet two weeks later to discuss the rest of the book. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Snacks are strictly buy-your-own or don’t have any, which sometimes is refreshing.

One thing these clubs share that some of my other book clubs don’t is turn-taking for the book selections. The late-night club usually vets titles among two or three that a member selects, but the final choice is up to the person whose turn it is to pick.

I know that female groups tend to prefer reach decisions by consensus, but I find that turn-taking not only is fair, it brings a wider variety of books to the table. If you’re willing to give up a bit of control and not always have a say in picking the book, you may find yourself delighted by a title you never would have picked yourself.

Next time: Picking good books to read.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Wiseass


There are moments when I’m reading Sherman Alexie’s writing, or watching his brilliant movie, “Smoke Signals,” that I see something so fresh and original that it must be truth. Often, funny truth. Many Native Americans make fun of the “rez car,” a car so beat-up and held together with duct tape that it can’t be driven outside of the reservation. Only Alexie makes that point (in the movie) by featuring some young folks who drive their car in reverse everywhere they need to go because their car’s transmission works only in reverse. His The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, winner of the National Book Award, is the same way. It speaks truth about being an adolescent, feeling out of place, and actually being out of place but finding a way to live with that. I remember laughing out loud while reading that book, in between bouts of recognition of the sad truths he told.

Let’s hope that the snow and ice that has gripped this region for weeks will subside at least a little bit on Feb. 5, when Alexi is supposed to appear at the Rockwell Museum is Corning for a reading.  After his reading, there will be a book signing and question-and-answer period. Tickets are available here:

If you can’t make it, go read one of his books (warning: they’re not all funny and for light reading) or see him in this video: where he gives as good as he gets from Stephen Colbert.

Whining about Weiner

The expression “chick Lit” has been used to describe all sorts of books written by women for a largely female audience, as if there’s something precious, cute and certainly not serious about such aims. The problem with such categories, of course, is that they pigeon-hole work. The phrase encourages people to dismiss such work. Never mind that some writers DO just write entertaining tomes meant to be consumed in a single beach weekend or similar book binge. Like, say, the prolific James Patterson. Or the late (and vastly entertaining) Robert B. Parker. Oh, you meant women write stuff like this? Singling out female writers for their lightness seems to be done in a flip way, but hints at something darker: female authors simply aren’t taken as seriously as male authors. So says Jennifer Weiner, considered a queen of chick Lit, when she wonders publicly why books by women rarely make a splash in the New York Times Book Review, for instance (where her books have NEVER been reviewed.) Yes, it would be helpful if she and Jodi Picoult, were not the standard bearers in this particular fight. Both write what some might call “commercial fiction.” (See Patterson, Parker, above.)  In a Jan. 13 profile in the New Yorker, Weiner even says she will be glad to step aside if a more literary author were to step forward to defend fellow women of letters. (Are you listening Louise Erdrich?)  After reading the profile, though, I am glad Jennifer Weiner is on our side. You go, girl.

If All of Rochester (and Buffalo) Read the Same book….

snow child By now you might have heard that this year’s selection for the “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…” program is Eowyn Ivey’s first (and only, so far) novel, The Snow Child. The book is a novelization of a folktale about a childless couple adopting a magical child, combined with a survival story set in 1920s Alaska. As light as the folktale might sound, the book actually begins with an attempted suicide.  “Huh?” you might be asking, but you’ll have to read it to find out more. The author (her first name is pronounced “Ay-oh-win,” and, yes, she is named after a Tolkien character) will be in Rochester March 19-21. You can find out more at Writers & Books, the literary organization sponsoring the big-read program and the author’s visit. At this site, there’s a full schedule of the program’s events, including those attended by the author, an interview with Ivey, and even a study guide to the book.

The Snow Child is also the January selection of  The Buffalo News Book Club, which featured a story about Ivey last week. Coincidence? Perhaps, but when a book is a Pulitzer Prize nominee as this one is, it tends to get a lot of attention.

Welcome to a new year and the Blueloon Book Club

When people ask me how many book clubs I belong to, I often say four. But it’s really more, as one of them is out of state, and another meets only four times a year. Some are one-time affairs.

With all this book reading and discussing going on, and with my regular job as a journalist, I figured it was time I finally started writing about books. So here I am, ready to go.

But first a little about me. I’m a native of Rochester, NY., but lived in New England for a while before returning to my home town. I have a degree in English literature and another in journalism. I’m married to a man from Troy, NY, which is pretty much as close as you can get to being a Yankee without actually being in New England. Hence, both of us are actually Red Sox fans. We have three children: A daughter who is a senior in high school, and twin sons who are in ninth grade.

What I write here is going to be part informational, part personal, part critical, part opinionated, and ideally part inspirational. I want to inspire you to read, to talk about reading, to revel in your intellect and to create a sense of community by sharing the ideas you come across in books. Yeah, I don’t ask much, do I?

Welcome to the Blueloon Book Club.