61. The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death by Laurie Notaro (219 pages)
62. Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones (295)
63. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (636 pages)
64. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (766 pages)
65. A Gathering of Gargoyles by Meredith Ann Pierce (284 pages)
66. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (607 pages)
67. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (607 pages)
68. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (544 pages)
69. Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelson (262 pages)
70. Blubber by Judy Blume (153 pages)
Bold=It’s great—read it now!!
Italics=It sucks—run away!
Plain Text=It’s varying degrees of ok. SPOILERS (particularly for Harry Potter)
“Three months after I unpacked my new vacuum cleaner, it suffered a stroke after ingesting a particularly girthy hairball and a nickel that took me five tries of rolling over it before my new vacuum would even suck them up. And then there was the twenty-one-inch television that was purchased after my six-month-old, mere infant TV/DVD combo went on strike, and held disc two of Gilmore Girls, Second Season hostage, which despite attempted surgery with a fork and a wad of chewing gum was never recovered.” “…[My husband] proceeded to get into his barbeque of a car and kill thousands of his own brain cells as they boiled to death inside his skull like a pot of macaroni on a stove.” “In the time it took the police to respond to the alarm that someone was breaking in to my house [now], the thief could have entered my house, surprised me on the potty, tackled me as I tried to shuffle to safety but fell because the pants around my ankles, hit me over the head with the Bigfoot mug my husband gave me for my birthday, then skinned me like a big game with the paring knife in my Henchels set (which he was going to steal anyway), wore my skin like a dress around the house, watched Death to Smoochy on DVD, and farted into my couch cushions before he realized how boring my house was and left because it turned out that the $2.84 in coins he found scattered all over the hallway floor from my pants pockets was actually sufficient to buy a value combo meal and a shake at the Jack in the Box.”
61. The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death by Laurie Notaro (219 pages) Notaro’s latest collection of essays deserves to be slowly savored. Though perhaps not her best work, it is just as hilarious, literally laugh-out-loud funny (and sometimes quite moving), as her other collections. Notaro describes freakish events and equally freakish characters—both of which are all too familiar to any occupant of planet Earth—from being bombed with bird crap after finally scoring a meal to the horrors of cruise-line meals, from the sadness of selling her house in a “craptastic” neighborhood, to the joys of moving to a hippie-infested college town. Notaro’s descriptive prose is utter genius in capturing the oddities of life, and she is the uncontested queen of the riotous simile. I pray she never runs out of material (though that is impossible in this world), and never, ever stops writing. Particularly as this is the last one I hadn’t devoured. Oh, well, guess I’ll just have to reread the others. Grade: A+
“Pity was for happy people to look down on unhappy ones with!” 62. Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones (295) In a magical wood, reality and time and identity seems as fluid and changeable as water. There, Ann meets Mordion, a “death-faced” magician and escaped Servant of the five evil Reigners who control the universe. Mordion uses his and Ann’s blood to create Hume to defeat the Reigners. Ann and Mordion, though, quickly become fond of Hume and try to give him a normal life, with a robot, Yam, to watch over him. Suddenly, though, they find themselves involved in the intrigue of a castle filled with knights. Only after the Howl books, this is the best of Jones’ insanely clever, beautiful fantasy novels. It is an enchanting, mind boggling, twisting, beautiful tale, with a charming love story at the center, and fantastic, fascinating, ambiguous characters (particularly Ann and Mordion). It’s Douglas Adams meets King Arthur. Grade: A
“Just picture coming home, and finding the Dark Mark hovering over your house, and knowing what you’re about to find inside…everyone’s worst fear.” “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”—Sirius Black “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” “Kill the spare.” “Bow to death, Harry.” 63. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (636 pages) The gathering storm, when Harry is forcefully expelled from any semblance of childhood and into adolescence. To say that it is a coming-of-age tale would be a cliché, but—in this middle book especially—it is clear that this is what it is. This ingenious series featuring the seven years of a boy hero’s adolescence, his movement from neglected, abused orphaned child to determined, brave, all-sacrificing hero. Even more interesting is what really makes Harry the hero. Sure, he’s brave and good, but what really saves Harry’s butt is the people who love him—for whatever reason that they do. Appropriately enough, it is the cast of characters that surround Harry that propels the series into greatness, personifying the extraordinary, profound, and dramatic themes. Like the rest of the series, the book is marked with beautiful and powerful, disturbing and moving images. The Muggle torture—very much resembling rape—at the Quidditch World Cup, the mistreatment of the slave house elves, the horrific miscarriages of justice in a world paralyzed by fear and mistrust, the tragic death of a noble child, Harry clinging to Cedric’s body. All written with humor, imagination, pathos, and wit. Upon rereading, it is also clear that Rowling is the queen of tragic irony that rivals Greek tragedians. And, though GOF and OOP are essentially info-dumps, it all actually adds to the mysteries and complexities of the series. “Terror everywhere…panic…confusion…that’s how it used to be…Well, times like that bring out the best in some people, and the worst in others…I would say he became as ruthless and cruel as many on the Dark side.”Themes that are woven throughout the series become more pronounced here. A portrait of a world warped by classism and speciesism (particularly in the slavery of house elves, which is parallel to child labor and animal rights, but also in the mistreatment of giants and werewolves), all of which are the villain’s greatest allies. The horrors and dangers of prejudice weaken the society so deeply that Voldemort is able to rise again. The world is now being seen by the children of its makers, those adults who were the victims of the previous war. It is a world built on a shaky and deeply flawed foundation, and the kids are beginning to realize it. Probably the most fascinating character to join the cast in GOF is Barty Crouch, brings a new layer to this world. A “good” man that used evil methods (killing, torture, the suspension of civil liberties) in order to fight the Dark Arts. But using such methods is evil in itself; the society is weakened. An innocent man spends thirteen years in a soul-sucking prison. Crouch also suffers personal failures because of his fanatical nature; his son, looking for a father figure, joins the Death Eaters and aids in torturing Neville’s parents into insanity. JKR’s message is clear throughout the series, who we are in our personal lives, how we treat others, who we love and care for, it affects everything and everyone. It is what makes us powerful or weak.
“Don’t you think you’ve got a bit of a saving-people-thing?” “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.” “A force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than the forces of nature.” 64. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (766 pages) Strike up the emo/goth music and get out your box of Kleenex, it’s the book where everything goes to hell. Including our hero, who’s suffering a combination of teenage angst and posttraumatic stress disorder that motivates him towards vigilante justice and outright revolution. From the first page description of the “once gleaming cars, now dusty” and “the weather remain[ing] undecided”, we are aware that Harry’s innocence is scraped raw, that he has fully left childhood, and now embarks on the painful movement towards adulthood. This is the book with the hardest scene (next to the finale, obviously) for me to read. It is a very emotional and very allegorical book. “He’s not a child.” “He’s not an adult, either.” “Just stay put while the grown ups sort it out, Harry! We won’t tell you anything.” One of the greatest mysteries of the series is Harry’s identity. In keeping him from it, the cruelest crime is committed against our hero: the treatment of him as a child. This is Harry’s great transition year, but none of the adult characters allow him to move towards adulthood or towards his ultimate destiny and duty (save Sirius). The greatest pain he feels is a justified feeling of intense frustration at everyone’s (particularly Dumbledore’s) protection of him. Harry is denied the information or ability to take on his adult mantel of hero. The one person who refuses to do this is his godfather, Sirius. Ironically, it is that exact person who pays the price for keeping Harry from his destiny. This is the book where Harry comes close to becoming “dirty Harry”, threatens to become James, a mean and cruel bully. He becomes increasingly withdrawn and lonely not only because of his isolation from the adults that insulate him from his destiny, but also because of the suffering he has endured. Not knowing the prophecy, not knowing his own identity and destiny, Harry slides between the two definitions of hero and villain. In the end, though, when he loses the one person who most understands him, his friends and adoptive family rally around him. This is the first time that Harry goes to battle with backup. And it becomes obvious that it is Harry’s ability to love and be loved, the extraordinary and fascinating characters that surround him, that is his greatest strength and his salvation. “And with a surge of sympathy for his godfather, Harry thought Sirius was probably the only person he knew who could really understand how he felt at the moment, because Sirius was in the same situation. Nearly everyone in the wizarding world thought Sirius a dangerous murderer and a great Voldemort supporter and he had had to live with that knowledge for fourteen years.” My favorite character, Sirius Black, is the only one who understands how Harry feels. No two people ever needed each other more than Sirius Black and Harry Potter. Essentially orphaned by his cruel family due to their obsession with blood purity, Sirius ran away from home at a young age. He understands Harry’s need for a family, Harry’s loneliness. The loneliness of having the entire world misunderstanding and persecuting you. But Sirius’ understanding of Harry goes to an even greater degree. After spending thirteen years in prison and being on the run, Sirius is forced to stay in a house, trapped in the past, unable to do anything for the Order. It reflects how the adults in Harry’s life are keeping him trapped in his childhood, refusing to allow him autonomy or his own destiny. There is nothing more cruel and frustrating than being denied the ability and right to fight your fight, to fight for those you love, for what you believe in. “He’s not James, Sirius.” “You are not your father, Harry.” Although Sirius is the only character that really understands Harry, there’s a tragic dementia in him. Sirius understands Harry, in part, because he has never really grown out of that age. He’s in a state of arrested development, never quite able to cast off the prisons that held him. Sirius is confused between Harry and James, mostly because of Harry’s resemblance to him. Snape is just as bad, never able to see anything but James when he looks at Harry. The significance of Harry’s resemblance to his parents is important. The love certain characters held for Lily and James is transferred to Harry. But, again, Harry must claim his own identity, move from the shadow of his parents that covers him in his childhood. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re not my family.” The romance of the family emerges more deeply in this book, particularly as it is one of the greatest forces on the characters. Characters are deeply motivated by their abusive, neglectful, dead, disowned (or disowning), lost, or loving and strong families. The bond of the family cannot be denied. Not by Sirius or Tonks who reject their family’s obsession with pure blood. Not by Bellatrix or the Malfoys that try to maintain their family’s “honor”. Not Percy who rejects his family in order to keep his job. Families are split by the war, destroyed by the war. And made by the war, grow stronger due to the war. Of all of the books in the series, this is the one with the most fascinating social commentary. Remus Lupin, one of many victims of Delores Umbridge (and her kind), is a victim of “speciesism”. Wizards feel themselves to be superior to any other living creatures, and so they segregate, manipulate, abuse, use, and oppress all others (including wizards of Muggle-descent). This is very often motivated by fear, which generates prejudice. Werewolves obviously are dangerous, but Remus has enough problems dealing with his condition; to also be subjected to poverty with the inability to work (particularly, teach), is excessive cruelty. Werewolves and the other magical creatures, after being oppressed so long, having been abused and used, subjected to cruel laws and offensive regulations, are an obvious weakness in the system which is rearing its ugly head during the war. They will be manipulated by Voldemort and turn on the “good” side. “A theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examinations, which, after all, is what school is all about.” “This is school, Potter, not the real world.” “So, we’re not supposed to be prepared for what’s waiting for us out there?” But JKR’s greatest social message makes it obvious that the author was once a teacher. With Umbridge, we have the most evil villain of all literature, one that murders education itself. And with the murder of education, the murder of children through ignorance. Evil upon evil. Umbridge represents politicians invading a school with standards and “ministry-approved curriculum” that more than reflects No Child Left Behind and its textbook and test driven education far removed from an engaging and practical education. Umbridge is ridiculous at best and horrifically dangerous at her worst. She completely and utterly distances her classroom from the real world, from preparing her students for the real world. With war on the horizon, more than a few of these students will pay a horrific price due to their ignorance. There is another, perhaps darker reasoning to Umbridge’s murdering of the educational system. She refuses to teach practical lessons because the government is afraid that the students will use it to go against the government. Strong, freethinking minds are a danger to the psychological control the government has over the people. Harry becomes a teacher himself, and a constructivist one at that. Through teaching others, Harry is able to not only fight against the system, but also to strengthen his own resources. He builds a group of friends that will be his greatest strength in his war with Voldemort. He also discovers the pleasures and joys of teaching, one of the few joys in his life. “I don’t need help from filthy little mudbloods like her!” Bullying in schools is another issue JKR brings up. There are obvious reasons behind the Marauders bullying Snape (and for him to bully back). Severus and Sirius are abused children. James hates the Dark Arts; Snape turns to the Dark Arts (symbolic of drugs, racism, gangs, white supremacist groups, etc) in order to find power against his bullies, in order to unleash his anger and frustration. Remus does nothing because he so fears becoming a target himself, again reflective of the horrible cycle that comes with bullying, shame, and oppression. It is a cycle that does not end, but permanently damages. The bullying is also a microcosm of what is going on in the world at large, reflecting the wizarding world. In Snape’s Worst Memory, James and Sirius essentially rape (or, in the least sexually harass) Snape by turning him over and exposing his underpants. This is the second time that this has happened in the series, the first being the Death Eaters attacking the Muggles at the World Cup. Actions in the greatest world (that is, the war over blood purity and reaction against suppression and prejudice) is acted out on a personal level. It has even greater implications, as well, in our characters’ personal lives. Snape, embarrassed and abused, lashes out at Lily—his most beloved friend—after being attacked by James. The cycle continues. The oppressed seek to oppress others in order to feel better. In bullying, there are no clear victims, no clear villains. Bullying is not evil, but a reflection of a much greater one. “Your father was the best friend I ever had and he was a good person. A lot of people are idiots at the age of fifteen. He grew out of it.” Yeah, Snape. There is a reason, we find later, that this is Snape’s worst memory. It is where he lost Lily and it cements his destiny as Death Eater, spy, murderer, betrayer. But, actually, that’s not quite true. Snape later says that the worst mistake he ever makes is getting her killed. And he is a good enough man to not only channel his anger and love into doing good in her memory (that is, protecting Harry). But all that comes later. That scene has huge implications for Harry. He loses his idealized view of his father. We learn that Harry truly is not his father; he is much more his mother. But, more importantly, we learn the importance of the complexities of character. No one is all good or all evil, and, more importantly, people grow and change, make mistakes and rectify them. Ironically, though, Harry constantly learns that the adults in his life were pretty rotten people when they were his age. Did their world fall because of their faults, or were their faults because of their falling world? Is Harry and his generation better because of the failure of the pervious generations? “Why, I have had the pleasure of meeting your parents, boy.” (now that’s fucked up right there, my friends!) Meanwhile, other characters are deepened. Neville’s utterly tragic story is revealed, as well as his motivation. God, is there anything more tear-jerking than that bubble gum wrapper? Neville’s father’s wand breaks quite symbolically in battle and he must come into his own. In fact, all of the child characters (no longer children, obviously) grow towards their ultimate destinies. They are victims of the past, living in the wake of the first war’s destruction. Now, they are ready to take the mantels of heroes from their parents. “Fools who wear their hearts proudly on their sleeves, who cannot control their emotions, who wallow is sad memories and allow themselves to be provoked so easily—weak people in other words—they stand no chance against his powers!” Love, the main theme of the series, is certainly prevalent in this book. It is spelled out quite obviously, and it is shown tragically over and over. It is our greatest strength; it is what makes us human. Voldemort’s inability to understand this power is his greatest weakness. Harry’s amazing ability to love and be loved is his greatest strength, but also the source of his greatest agony. Our heroes are constantly forced to sacrifice who and what they love for the greater good. Emotion and love are the key to every character, whether it be a flaw or a strength. Snape, I believe, more than anyone. Snape calls emotion a weakness that has to be controlled, and yet the whole speech is full of self-loathing. And yet, Snape’s emotion is his greatest strength. “Sirius had never kept him waiting before…Sirius had risked everything, always, to see Harry, to help him…if Sirius was not reappearing out of that archway when Harry was yelling for him as if his life depended on it…” As it is Harry’s. Harry is no longer alone in the graveyard. He faces the Death Eaters with Ginny, Neville, Luna, Hermione, and Ron right beside him. And then the cavalry comes in. There is no way that Harry would ever defeat Voldemort without his friends. This is shown beautifully when Voldemort possesses Harry, but Harry’s love for Sirius, his desire to die and join him (again, those two huge themes of death and love converging into one), expels Voldemort from his body. It is appropriate that Sirius is the first person that Harry wants to kill and also the first person he nearly kills for. Love conquers death, ironically, because losing a loved one to death is a million times worse than dying. It is Harry’s ability to understand that to a tragic degree, that makes him a master of death.
65. A Gathering of Gargoyles by Meredith Ann Pierce (284 pages)The rare occasion where a sequel is just as enchanting, intriguing, and beautifully written as the original. Aeriel has saved the darkangel, Irrylath, from the evil enchantment of his mother the White Witch, but she suffers from a broken heart when he cannot return her love. Aeriel leaves him in order to unravel another riddle and defeat the White Witch by gathering the lons. On her adventures, Aeriel will perhaps finally discover her true identity. What propels this series into the extraordinary is the stunningly imaginative images, like something from a deep, dark dream buried long ago in childhood. The plot and character are deceptively simple, and therein lies the fantastically original beauty. Familiar elements from the oldest of fairy tales (East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Psyche, Beauty and the Beast, The Lotus Eaters) are blended into a captivating, gothic, dark, beautiful, dream-like, eerie, and original tale full of images that haunt and stun. A series that has my highest recommendations. Grade: A
“It is probably the most dangerous and powerful potion in this room.” “I’d rather have [those maggots] than that [sweetheart] necklace.” “It’s undoubtedly from Lily he gets it.” “How people who cared about him had stood in front of him, one by one, his mother, his father, his godfather, and finally Dumbledore, all determined to protect him, but now, that was over.” 66. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (607 pages) Should be renamed Harry Potter and Love and Death; where the two main themes of the series—love and death—converge into one of its most brilliant and cohesive books. Oh, it’s Soap Opera time, my friends! On the surface, it is a shock from the angst and depression of the previous novel, a seemingly light a fluffy tale of multiple romantic comedy storylines. But, just barely under the surface lies the darkest of implications: death’s true horrors lie in its ability to destroy those we love, and this is love’s greatest torture and salvation. Throughout the book, the themes of love and death weave together to where death makes all the ships come together.
Severus Snape shares billing with Harry Potter this time, the only character besides Sirius Black to do so. Which is appropriate in and of itself, the two men who so greatly determined the course of Harry’s life, who were the closest to his parents, and whose actions are so dictated by Harry. But the focus now is on Severus Snape. The man who lives “in a Muggle dung heap” moves from enchantingly ambiguous to thoroughly frustrating and fascinating character. Right at the beginning, we finally see him with the Death Eaters: calm, cool, collected, amused, and disturbingly dispatching all the reasons why we have come to trust him. It is like looking through a mirror as we watch him in this scene. With the Order, he is a cruel, mean asshole, but one that does immeasurable good. With the Death Eaters, he is kind and charming, but doing them immeasurable harm. Snape’s thread is woven throughout the novel and climaxes in one of the series greatest shockers as he murders Dumbledore, supposedly forever proving where his allegiance lies. Oh course, though, for anyone with a literature degree whose attention is clearly on those two themes (love and death), knows that if Snape causes the death, than the reason must be love. All those teenage love stories that saturate the air like humidity only serve to foreshadow Snape’s ultimate motivation: love. “Instinctive, you know—like his mother! I’ve only ever taught a few with this kind of ability, I can tell you that, Sybil, why even Severus…” Harry and Snape’s strained relationship is deeply examined (though not resolved) in this book. Snape is Harry’s second-best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, and it becomes painfully obvious how much Snape has taught Harry, despite Harry’s hatred of him. Not only what he has taught Harry, but he’s saved a number of people (Katie, Ron, Dumbledore, and Harry just in this book). We see Snape without his cruelty and without the Harry-filter, but instead through the mantel of the Half-Blood Prince. The ironic twist is that we are looking at a Snape before his fall and, more importantly, before his redemption. And yet, we are filled with affection and admiration. Meanwhile, in present day, Snape seems to be falling deeper into darkness. The Half-Blood Prince is the Snape that Lily loved and lost. But present day Snape is the one that Lily redeemed and saved. This is all cleverly foreshadowed through Slughorn’s hints of Harry inheriting his “mother’s talent”, which really means his talent to love, and his talent to cheat off Snape. There is also an interesting paralleling occurring, between Ginny’s seduction with Tom Riddle’s diary and Harry’s seduction with Snape’s potions book. Harry’s feelings over the book betraying him (“It was as though a beloved pet had turned suddenly savage”) reflects Lily’s feelings of betrayal when Snape calls her a mudblood and chooses the Dark Arts over her. The reason why Snape flips out (but not in the way we might expect) over Harry having his book is because—in the middle of working for his redemption—here’s Harry forcing him to relive his fall all over again. Snape’s tale is incredibly Shakespearean and classically Greek in nature, with just a touch of Dickens. He falls gradually to the Dark Side, seeking power and an escape from oppression. But the climax of his fall, the moment of horrific realization, his Othello-killing-Desdemona, his Oedipus-poking-out-his-eyes, is when he realizes his actions have done much worse than lose the woman he loves, they have killed her and her husband. Like Sidney Carleton of A Tale of Two Cities (“It’s a far, far better thing I do than anything I’ve done before”), though, Snape finds salvation and redemption because of his love, working to protect Lily’s son, fighting for the side of good. Rather than destroying him, love saves Snape and redeems his soul. “Snape and Peter Pettigrew together had set Voldemort hunting after Lily and James and their son…” But all of this is seen through the eyes of the child that survived the aftermath and lives in ignorance. Snape has caused it all, betrayed the Potters, saved Harry, and sets Harry up to be the hero, allowing Lily to die for him and thereby survive. Snape and Pettigrew are reverse mirrors. As Snape betrays Voldemort to save the Potters, Pettigrew betrays the Potters to save himself and Voldemort. But, there is an even more fascinating mirroring occurring, and that is between Severus Snape and Sirius Black, the best friend of Lily Evans and James Potter respectively. Both unintentionally bring about the destruction of the very people that they seek so desperately to protect. That failure and guilt determines the course of the rest of their lives, particularly their dedication and adoration of Harry. Ironically, both see too much of James in Harry and that torments both of them. “His face was suddenly demented, inhuman, as though he was in as much pain as the yelping, howling dog stuck in the burning house behind them.” “I have been tolerant enough to answer that question already…my answer has not changed.” The relationship between Snape and Dumbledore also reaches a climax. It is a mirrored version of that between Snape and Harry (which may also have elements of sibling rivalry in relation to Dumbledore). Dumbledore’s greatest character trait is his absolute loyalty and devotion to “his kids”. He is very protective of his followers, frequently to their undoing. Not only protective of their physical being, but of their souls. He gives them the means to find salvation and redemption, even cruelly asking them to do the most horrific things. It’s the least Dumbledore can do that he gets so rip-shit whenever anyone questions Snape’s loyalty. Snape is forced to euthanize Dumbledore, again reflecting the themes of love and death. Death has no power when it comes to love, and one of the greatest acts of love can be the act of killing someone who is suffering. Snape is absolutely tortured by being forced to do this deed, to kill the one person who trusts, respects, and treasures him. “My mother can’t have been magic, or she wouldn’t have died!” The darkest and most demented love plot is of Merope, Voldemort’s mother. Voldemort is the product of a loveless union between a Muggle and a witch, the forces of male and female, the aggressor and the oppressed. Merope’s love is unrequited and obsessive, as is Tonks’ and Snape’s. But Merope twists and perverts her love by drugging and possessing Tom Riddle. In doing so, rather than being selfless, her love is warped and the product of that love is the most evil creature. What makes Voldemort so evil is his inability to love. Ironically, it is Voldemort’s Muggle heritage that infuses him with power his pureblood family lacks. Voldemort commits patricide at a young age, which is appropriate as he becomes a father figure for other lost boys (i.e. Snape and Crouch, jr.), a warped and twisted father. Also, Voldemort has the ability to attract the ambitious, the thuggish, and the weak and to twist them to his own devises. Merope isn’t the only mother to play an important role in the action of HBP. Snape’s mother and, most importantly, Harry’s mother, and who they loved (the “unworthy”) are interwoven deeply into plot and character motivation. Each mother bestows a title onto her son, the Half-Blood Prince, the Boy Who Lived, and the Heir of Slytherin. Merope’s fate, the loss of her powers due to her unrequited love, is a threat of Tonks, who is also losing her grip due to her love of Remus Lupin. She, also, will become an abandoned expectant mother. Merope, though, will die of a broken heart, and that is not quite Tonks’ fate. Again, love and death. “People think they might be dead tomorrow, so they’re rushing all sorts of decisions…people eloping left, right and center.” Love and death comes together into another theme: carpe diem! Faced with imminent death, the characters become more open and expressive of their love, cling more deeply to those that they love, taking more risks. More importantly, love matures, deepens, and is more real. Bill and Fleur (mirroring Lily and James who were married at nineteen), are engaged to be married. Death, in other words, unites the couples more than anything else. After Dumbledore’s death, the love stories are revealed and reunited (Tonks and Remus are holding hands, Hermione and Ron are comforting each other). This occurs at Dumbledore’s funeral, where the character then discuss going to a wedding. Love and Death. “He was as tall as she was now.” For the first time, Harry looks adults directly in the face. He is an equal to them. He answers the riddles, knows the action, watches it unfold. For the first time, he stands up. Harry is no longer a child, no longer even a teenager. He is a man. No longer concerned with childish ideals of “cool” or “pretty”, only with the people he loves. Also, he is painfully aware that no adult stands between him and destruction. While love is his greatest strength, death has destroyed those he loves. “I know!” said Harry impatiently. “I can love!” It was only with difficult that he stopped himself adding, “Big deal!” “Which given everything that has happened to you, is a great and remarkable thing, you are still too young to understand how unusual you are, Harry…Voldemort created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress?” Yes, Dumbledore’s repeated, cheesy line about Harry’s strength in love comes to a deeper understanding. Harry will never join, never be tempted to the Dark Arts. Voldemort has created his greatest enemy, fortified his greatest enemy with the greatest backup (all those great characters), and made sure that enemy will defeat him. All because he killed (death!) his parents (love!). So, needless to say, this book is deceptively light and fluffy with all the love stories, but it also expresses the darkness of mortality, the horrors of death, with every sort of death or love that there could be. Certainly one of the smartest, well-written, deepest, thematically-juicey pieces of literature in an already extraordinary series. Grade: A+
“They were three teenagers in a tent whose only achievement was not, yet, to be dead…” “You wonderful boy. You brave, brave man.” “The boy who lived.” “I have spied for you, and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything has supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter.” “His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms.” “I am about to die.” “I open at the close.” “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 67. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (607 pages) Harry Potter and the Inevitable Conclusion. Where everyone either dies, goes badass, or goes camping! For better or for worse, where all the hundreds of plot threads are tied up. And never was there an aptly named book. It is a blood bath. The body count is more than 84. Oh, it is a book of gratuitous violence, horrific blood-purifying genocide and persecution, mayhem, agony, death, anguish, torture, torment. Dude, I love it! “The life he had lost had hardly ever seemed so real to him as at this moment when he knew he was about to see the place where it had been taken from him.” Probably the most satisfying motif of the final book is the cycles. Constantly, the action returns to previous locations and situations. Hagrid, on Sirius’ motorbike, delivers Harry to safety, just as he did in the beginning. But the cycles show obviously how much our “boy hero” and his pals have reached their full potential, how much they have grasped their autonomy, and are adult, full-grown heroes fighting their way through a dangerous world, with the Marauders as their patron saints. That is not to say that they are dealing well with it. Harry longs to be a child again, directed and protected by the adults around him. He also has to deal with the guilt of having been protected by the deaths of those he loves. Another motif, which has run throughout the series and comes into fruition at its last, is the theme of Harry as a stone, as a magical object, such as the Philosopher’s Stone, a Horcrux, or a Hallow. Like those objects, he is used—as a pawn—in the game against Voldemort. Harry, of course, most values the resurrection stone, the saddest, most tragic, and perhaps most flawed of the Hallows. The ultimate unaccepting of death. Harry becomes the master of the Hallows because he is able to accept the death of his loved ones as well as his own death. Grief equals love. Of course, though, the hidden star of the show is “that Snape boy”. Headmaster of Hogwarts in order to protect the little kiddies. In fact, Severus Snape is an incredibly maternal force. His doe Patronus shows his true nature as a stand-in for Lily, as Harry’s protector, as being ultimately motivated by his love for Harry’s mother. The doe, of course, is the link between Snape and Lily and therefore Harry. It mirrors the grim, which is the physical link between James and Sirius and therefore Harry. One, of course, symbolizes love, and the other death. It is not coincidence that the doe reunites Ron and Harry. The doe symbolizes the reunion of Snape and Lily, of the power of friendship in salvation and redemption. That is a thousand times more important than the preceding betrayal. “Severus Snape wasn’t yours. Snape was Dumbledore’s.” Oh, Snape. All along, just a poor bullied, oppressed, persecuted, abused little boy with a passionate love for the one person that was kind and loving to him, Lily Evans. A poor boy full of hatred, bitterness, and (originally) selfishness. His deep and understandable desire for power leading to his undoing, his fall, his loss of her. Severus Snape, the modern Shakespearean tragic hero, who allowed his oppression and persecution to destroy him, to ruin his relationship with the one person who could have (and, in fact, did) save his soul. A redeemed hero who we don’t quite know is redeemed until the final pages of the final book. “You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and he understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying…do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and above all, those who live without love.” Needless to say, the most prevalent theme of the book, and the series, is death. It is a very complex and delicate theme. There is a difference between not dying and defeating death. (Just as, in the series, there is a difference between being evil and just being a jerk) That is, between fearing death and doing anything to prevent it and living after death, both literally and figuratively. Therein lies the difference between good and evil. The latter deals out death and misunderstands the horrors of life. The former accepts and appreciates death. Oh, the finale. The most disturbing, exhilarating, and moving sequence in the books. The tragic, horrible, sad-as-hell, triumphant battle. OK, yes, the epilogue is cheesy and ridiculous. But, it is important. Life renewed. Life without death. Life in the aftermath. All the kids named after the dead. And why? Because of love. On what other note could the series possibly have ended? “These are very close to religious questions.”—Dr. Andrei Linde “Every atom that you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you…a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare.” “The complete fossil legacy of all the Americans alive today—that’s 270 million people with 206 bones each—will only be about fifty bones, one quarter of a complete skeleton.” “99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.” “We are so used to the motion of our own inevitability as life’s dominant species that it is hard to grasp that we are here only because of timely extraterrestrial bangs and other flukes.” “Every living thing is an elaboration on a single original plan. As humans we are mere increments—each of us a musty archive of adjustments, adaptations, modifications, and providential tinkerings stretching back 3.8 billion years. Remarkably, we are ever closely related to fruit and vegetables…it cannot be said too often: all life is one. That is, and I suspect will forever prove to be, the most profound true statement there is.”
68. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (544 pages) Another fascinating book by Bill Bryson, the champion of turning the most extraordinary (and often unreachable) subjects into readable, engaging, addictive, and mind-blowing books. Here, he tackles the small subject of the history of our little blue planet, from the great cosmos to the tiniest atoms, from the creation of the universe to our species’ first steps. Bryson’s prose is chock full of wonder and appreciation and simple entertainment at the awesome wonders of our world. Most impressively, he manages to embrace that universal truth of science: the more we understand, the less we know. And that is also the beauty and awe of science, of all that goes into our magnificent world. It is an amazing feat that we are here, that anything is here, and we are all made of the same stuff and come from the same stuff. We should not only appreciate that to its fullest, but we should do everything in our power to take care of it. Grade: A+69. Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelson (262 pages) (reread for teaching.) 70. Blubber by Judy Blume (153 pages) Jill is a typical fifth grade girl who finds herself caught up in the cruel bullying of Linda (whom the class dubs “Blubber”) through her fear of the bossy, cool Wendy. There is something about Linda that just makes everyone want to pick on her, according to Jill. Meanwhile, Jill also eggs her mean neighbor on Halloween, because he deserves it. What will happen when Jill finds herself in Linda’s place? Will the fifth grade class learn their lesson? Blume perfectly captures the voice, mind, and motivation (a shallow sense of right and wrong, of little true motivation, a lack of empathy or consequence) of fifth graders, along with their characters, and the horrific world of bullying and victimization. Grade: A-