Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's so special about Harry Potter?

Note: This post is spoiler-free! Read on in safety.

Last weekend was Harry Potter weekend in the Crum household. Hubby and I planned to go to a release party at our local Borders, then get our copies (print and audio) just after midnight. I got too sleepy, though, so Hubby went without me--in his Lord Voldemort costume. Apparently he was a big hit with the kids, which isn't quite in keeping with the Dark Lord's evil image. But then Darth Vader is a hit with kids too. Here's a pic of Hubby in all his evil glory:

Lord Voldemort goes to the Harry Potter release party

Bright and early Saturday morning, we all got started. I grabbed the print copy and headed for the couch. Hubby ripped the CDs (all 24 of 'em), put them on his iPod, and headed to work. Son took the CDs and headed for his room. I finished the book at 9:00 that evening; Hubby finished Sunday night, and Son is about halfway through. Since Son isn't done yet, Hubby and I have to be very careful about discussing it. It's hard, because Son keeps asking us to tell him if [insert character here] will die.

So what is it about these books that make us--and millions more otherwise-normal people of all ages--so obsessive? I'm sure the critics and psychoanalysts could give you detailed, academic answers, but I'm not going to do that. I'll just give you my thoughts:

  • Storytelling: The tales are well-plotted and engaging adventures with lots of excitement. Harry's magical world is fascinating, and it's a thrill to tag along on his many adventures, with dramas both large and small.

  • Characterization: Rowling's characters are multifaceted and richly-drawn. She has very few one-dimensional characters. They are complex and seem very real (except for their magical ability). All are flawed, just like real people, and readers can relate to their struggles. We really care about these characters. Sometimes they seem almost like family.

  • Authenticity: Rowling doesn't talk down to her readers, and she doesn't sugarcoat anything. There's real evil in her books, and endings aren't always 100% happy. Even though the books are fantasy, there's an element of realism that pulls you in and enables you to relate to the characters. Some parents object to how dark the books can be, but I suspect kids appreciate that. My childhood certainly wasn't all sunshine and light, so stories that present the world that way didn't really interest me. Kids are good BS-detectors.

Now that I've finished the last book, I feel almost bereft. It's over. If anyone out there can recommend another series to fill this gap in my literary life, please speak up! I need something to ease my Harry Potter withdrawl.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Looking for ideas

A few days ago, I wrote a post on looking for beauty, in which I talked about how practicing photography has helped me notice the beauty in my everyday world. As I was writing that post, I realized that writing has had a similar effect on my ability to notice ideas. Because I'm always on the lookout for something interesting to blog about, I notice more interesting stuff--a poem on a bathroom wall, the way people interact with a monument, or even a funny headline. Now that I write regularly, I think more about the various bits and bytes that flow through my consciousness, considering what they might mean, how they might fit together, and how I can write something about them that won't sound totally stupid. I probably fail that last part of the test regularly.

Socrates once said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Someone else said that ignorance is bliss. There's truth in both of those statements, but both are extremes and oversimplifications. (Why I think that is so may be fodder for a future blog post; for now I'll return to my original point.) I could think so much about everything in my life that I don't make time to actually live--and get a headache to boot. Or I could let the waves of life wash over me, oblivious to patterns and meaning, drifting along aimlessly and wondering why things happen to me. I'm a big fan of a balanced life, a middle way, so I think I'll find a third way: living life as fully as possible, wringing every last drop of joy and sensation out of my existence, but also making time to consider what it all might mean--or even just noticing the clever turn of phrase, the funny headline, the intelligent insight, any of which I can rip off... er, I mean, blog about.

So what's my point? If you want to notice more about your life, take up a hobby that requires you to notice stuff. To the man whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the photographer, everything looks like a potential picture. And to the blogger, everything looks like a potential topic for a post.

Today's funny headline

Courtesy of The Guardian: Normal Relations Sought by Russia. Just what kind of relations have they been having over there anyway?

Er, sorry. It is Friday after all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A new home for my clownfish

I have a confession to make. I am a serial killer of anemones. After I got my pair of clownfish a few years ago, I got an anemone for them. It died. Fish Store Guy said maybe I should try a more hardy species of anemone, so I did. It died. Then Fish Store Guy suggested I try the hardiest, most bullet-proof anemone in the aquarium trade. I did. It lasted a month, but then the inevitable happened. Enough, I said. I couldn't bear any more dead anemones on my conscience, so I gave up my dream of having a pair of clownfish snuggling in an anemone. After awhile, the clownfish gave up the dream too and moved into a leather coral. I felt guilty every time I looked at them.

Some months ago, I was browsing Wet Web Media and started reading about anemones. The experts who run the site told a newbie that his anemone had most likely been killed by chemicals produced by... his leather coral. Apparently leathers produce nasty toxins to defend their territories, and anemones are often sensitive to those chemicals. I tried to fight it, but the dream started to take hold in my brain again. I traded my leather corals in for credit at the Local Fish Store, ran charcoal in the filter to remove the chemicals, and impatiently waited till I was done traveling, so I could be home to monitor the situation. Yesterday I ventured forth to the Local Fish Store in search of my next victim... er, pet. I came home with not one but two anemones, a big long-tentacled anemone and a small bubble anemone that was attached to the same piece of rock.

It's been a whole day, and bnth anemones seem to be thriving. They haven't even moved from where I put them (anemones often wander around the tank, leaving a path of destruction in their wake as they seek the perfect home). The clownfish are happy as, well... clowns, and they aren't even fighting. Mrs. Clown has cleared the area around the anemone, even moving a sponge on a good-sized piece of rock (I'd have paid good money to see her do that). I'm not sure, but I think she might have mating on her mind. Here are a couple pics:

Mrs. Clownfish (a/k/a "Coral")
Female tomato clownfish with my new long-tentacled anemone

Mr. Clownfish (a/k/a "Marlin")
Male tomato clownfish with my new long-tentacled anemone

I dare not get my hopes up, as I've been disappointed too many times. But maybe this time...

Looking for beauty

Last weekend I heard someone say that he and his wife had decided to start "looking for beauty" in their surroundings. They even purchased a digital camera to document the beauty in their world. Now I'm not exactly an artistic person, but this phrase, "looking for beauty," stuck with me. I thought about those rainy early spring mornings when I waded through mud to take pictures of flowers in my yard. That's what I was doing--looking for beauty--because at the end of a gloomy Portland winter I needed all the beauty I could find. But too often I don't make the effort to see the beauty in my everyday life.

I complained to an art teacher once that I couldn't draw. He said, "Your problem isn't that you don't know how to draw. It's that you don't know how to see." He talked about looking at something closely, really seeing the details, then drawing while looking at those details. I tried it... and I actually drew something almost recognizable. My husband, a natural artist, notices every detail about everything, even at 70 mph on the freeway (not always a good thing). So maybe the key--or one key--to artistic talent is how we see, taking the time to look closely and see the details in our world.

I still don't draw, mostly because it's too much of a struggle for me. But I'm trying to apply this lesson through photography. When I'm taking pictures, I find that I notice more, both in my everyday surroundings and when traveling. I see not just landmarks and spectacular views, but also light and color and patterns. For example, when I went to LA a couple of weeks ago, I took the usual touristy pictures, but I also noticed an especially shiny spot in a small tar pit. The pattern of light and sky reflected in the edge of a pool of tar caught my eye and made a cool picture:
Sky reflected in a small tar pit

There's so much beauty in even the most mundane of surroundings, if we only take the time to see it.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter: the latest movie and the last book

[don't worry; no spoilers here]

I've been too busy living life to blog about it much lately, but I do want to say something about the movie version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I saw Friday night. Hubby and I disagree; I liked it, and he didn't. He's a purist where Harry Potter movies are concerned, getting annoyed at any change they make from the books. But since Phoenix was an 800+ page book, they had to cut it to pieces to make a 2 1/2 hr movie. Overall, I think they cut intelligently, including everything that was essential for telling the story and keeping the sequence logical and easy to follow. The acting seemed better than it has it some of the previous movies. Michael Gambon seemed to get Dumbledore right for a change. Supposedly he finally read the books before playing the part this time, so he now has a clue about the character after being way off in Goblet of Fire. Emma Watson's acting gets better with each film (thank goodness). Imelda Staunton was perfect as Dolores Umbridge, absolutely loathesome. And Daniel Radcliffe just gets better and better as Harry, bringing more maturity and range to the role than ever.

Now the countdown begins to the seventh and final book, due out this Saturday. Tony plans to dress as Voldemort for the party at Borders and get our copy right at midnight. I might go, but after a long day at work, I'm not sure I'll make it till midnight. The big discussion at our house is, Is Snape evil or (sort of) good? I don't want to say too much, because I know at least one of my readers hasn't read Book 6 yet, so I'll be a bit vague. Tony maintains that he's really on Dumbledore's side. I think Snape's on his own side, looking out for himself. He does what he has to do to stay alive. It'll be interesting to see what he does in the last book. Of course, the really big question is, Will Harry die? In a way I think he might, because that would be a good way for Rowling to ensure that she doesn't get talked into writing another Harry Potter book. Having Harry die while killing Voldemort would make a great dramatic ending to the series. But I don't know if she would do that. She has said that parts of the 7th book are very sad and that there is more than one death. In other words, I'll be in a foul mood for at least a week after I read it.

If you're a Harry Potter fan, please leave a comment with your predictions. If you aren't: run, don't walk, to your nearest library or bookstore, get a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and start reading! You don't know what you're missing.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Thank you, Garrison Keillor

While I've never been a big Prairie Home Companion fan (heck, I couldn't even spell "Wobegone" without a little help from Google just now), I do enjoy Garrison Keillor's writing. His recent column on libraries is wonderful: A trip to the library can restore your faith in democracy. I like it not only because it praises libraries and criticizes Republicans (though both of those are fine activities that should be practiced in print more often), but because Keillor once again demonstrates his skill as a writer. The man can turn a phrase. For example:

Libraries have rushed forward into the new age (whichever one we're in now) and the word ''librarian'' is out. They're information professionals now, and it's a media resource center, and it's wired to the max. Just as we novelists have become experiential document specialists producing sensory data-based narratives encoded in a symbolic format that informally we refer to as English.


My old hometown Carnegie library with the columns and high-domed ceiling was irreplaceable, and so of course it was torn down by vandals in suits and ties and replaced with a low, warehouse-looking library that says so clearly to its patrons: ''Don't get any big ideas. This is as good a library as you clowns deserve.''

In an age when people seem to favor acidic sarcasm and blistering criticism--and talk show hosts and columnists on the right and left poison the public airwaves with vicious lies and dangerous extremism--Keillor stands out for making his points with gentle humor and thoughtful commentary. One more example:

The other day, Mr. Giuliani came out against ''putting government in a situation where government is in charge of so many different things'' and a short time later he called for the government to build a fence the length of the Mexican border, ''a technological fence,'' which I guess means something fancier than a mud fence, possibly using kryptonite.

Can you imagine hearing something like that from the typical radio talk show host? Nope, me neither.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This 'n' That

I'm really busy at work this week, so I don't have a lot of time or energy to write. So this entry will be a brief hodgepodge o' stuff:

It's *hot* here! Supposedly it was 104 yesterday, and it's 92 today. I don't mind, because I have air conditioning, and I like hot weather. But the native Oregonians are whining big time. And I'm nursing a sunburn, thanks to spending most of Monday gardening without sunscreen. You'd think I'd know better than that, but, alas, I apparently do not.

The latest Harry Potter movie came out today, and the next (and last) book is due out on the 21st. I plan to see the movie this weekend, and I'll get my copy of the book first thing in the morning on the 21st (no, I don't plan to get it at midnight, because then I'd stay up all night reading it and feel like crap the next day). We have a ritual for days when new Harry Potter books come out. My husband takes our son out for the day, and I spend all day on the couch, reading. The last time they hung around, I threatened them with various kitchen implements when they interrupted me. By the end of the day, I'll be done with the book, and it'll be safe for them to come home. Plus, Tony can start reading the book, and we won't fight over it like we used to.

Finally, I ran across a cool web site this afternoon: Librarians: We're Not What You Think. The coolest part is the photo gallery, which includes images of librarians from ads (including a vibrator ad... really!), TV, movies, books (of course) games, and more. I'll have to add Nympho Librarian to my reading list :-) (It goes well with a nickname I acquired a few years ago... a couple of you know what I'm talking about)

That's enough for today. Time to get back to work.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pics from Universal Studios

I'm back from Hollywood, and since no one offered me a movie contract, I'll have to go back to work tomorrow :-( But hey, at least I got some cool pictures, and we had a really good time. The trip was Tony's 40th birthday present, one year late because he was recovering from a knee injury last year and couldn't really enjoy his 40th. So I dragged the old fart to Universal Studios this year instead. During our two days in the park, we managed to see, eat, and ride almost everything that could be seen, eaten, or ridden. A few random comments before we get to the pictures:
* You know it's going to be a good water ride when they sell rain ponchos at the beginning of the line. Even with the ponchos, we got soaked on Jurassic Park... but it was worth it.
* Fear Factor is much more entertaining live than on TV, especially if you sit in the back so you don't get too grossed out.
* Waterworld the show is much better than Waterworld the movie... and the star is cuter than Kevin Costner.
* The earthquake part of the studio tour is seriously cool and way too realistic. I may need a tranquilizer to ride BART again.

Psycho House and Bates Motel
(and the Bates Motel doesn't look so menacing with the Grinch set in the background, does it?)
The Psycho house! The Bates Motel

Where's Spiderman when you need him?
Tony being strangled by the Green Goblin

Can you imagine the amp for this thing?
Me with a giant guitar outside Universal Studios

Universal Studios... where even the dumpsters are entertaining:
Even the dumpsters are entertaining

And the obligatory tourist shot (geez, I need a tan!)

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Wall revisited

This morning when I logged into my Flickr account, I found that someone had invited me to contribute my photos of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to a Flickr group for photos taken at the Wall. After I added the photos to the group pool, I looked at some of the pics from the group administrator. I was struck by several in particular, of the Wall with lots of identical flowers lined up at the base. Here are links to a couple of the best ones:

What was the occasion? Memorial Day? I wondered. I looked at the title of one of the photos. Father's Day Flowers. My son spent Father's Day returning from a camping trip with his dad and me, running around and laughing. But each rose in these pictures represents a child whose father didn't come home, a child for whom Father's Day brings painful memories. I could say a lot more about the senselessness of war, how willing the comfortable and powerful are to send our young people into battle when the cause is questionable and the plan for victory incomplete. But I think I'll just end this post with the hope that we remember the lessons of the present war longer than we remembered the lessons of Vietnam, so that in the future fewer children will spend Father's Day in mourning.