Sharing the Magic of Harry Potter

This is the kind of blog post that I hope I’ll be writing in a few years.

Why Harry Potter? Reflecting on the Magic as It Hooks My Child by Molly from First the Egg

I think this aspect of sharing literature with a kid is what has me most excited:

It’s the first bit of our culture that’s really his, too. Eric and I have been making Harry Potter references since before Noah started listening and talking. … He’s been looking forward to reading Harry Potter and joining that conversation. It’s not just us, either: if he’s carrying the book around or just mentions it, other adults can talk plot points and characters quite warmly. It’s like a ticket to actual conversations about shared reading experiences with other people.

In the spirit of sharing the books I love with my son, even though he’s much too young to ‘get it,’ I’m taking him to a Harry Potter party at my mom’s library tomorrow! A whole day of events are planned, beginning with a baby program. There will be owls and a costume contest. Here’s a video starring my sister as Hermione with a little more info:

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp, MD

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The main idea of this parenting how-to book is that babies younger than 3 months are really not ready to be outside the womb, and when they’re upset, what helps them the most is to approximate the ‘womb experience’ through what Dr. Karp calls the 5 S’s: Swaddling, Side, Shh, Swinging, and Sucking. Though the subtitle claims that these methods are new, one of Karp’s main points throughout the book is that these are things that our ancestors and traditional societies today have always done to calm babies. I found most of these practices instinctual; they were things I was already doing because I’d seen my mom do them with my younger siblings, especially saying “shh” and bouncing and offering pacifiers. Dr. Karp’s presentation in this book is perky and upbeat, using puns and other bad jokes, along with lots of anecdotes from parents, quotes, headlines, and cartoons. It’s a quick read and an easy reference for new parents.

I have found Dr. Karp’s methods and ideas to be useful, but not quite life-saving. I’m lucky to have a baby who isn’t “colicky” or especially fussy. But the 5 S’s do help out a lot at night-time and naptime, and thinking of them systematically in this way is useful. My little boy especially likes white noise, and that’s something I might not have tried if the book didn’t emphasize it so much. My mom gave this book to me as a present, and I’m glad I’ll have it on hand to refer to when it comes time to wean Cogan off of his pacifier and swaddle.

Through the Ever Night

Through the Ever Night by Veronica Rossi

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This sequel to Under the Never Sky follows Peregrine and Aria in their separate journeys until they finally reunite. Peregrine is the new leader of his tribe, responsible for taking his people through the greatest crisis they’ve ever faced. Both he and Aria are eager to rescue Perry’s nephew Talon, captive in the protected dome Reverie. Everyone faces the threat of the worsening Aether storms, so there is increasing urgency to find the Still Blue, a place of safety and peace. Aria realizes that Perry’s people will never accept her, so she leaves to search for the Still Blue. Treacherous leaders Sable and Hess conspire to save those loyal to them and shut out all others, in a repetition of the Unity that separated Aria’s people from Peregrine’s ages ago. Aria and Peregrine fell in love in the first book; here their love is tested through temptation, competing loyalties, and the inherent differences in their peoples. There is a second tragic love story between Perry’s sister Liv and his friend Roar.

I enjoyed the rich language and the interpersonal drama that’s reflected in the dangerously roiling atmosphere. In this world, there are mystery, discovery, betrayal, and great beauty. This book is the second in the trilogy, and it sets up the third to be full of excitement and romance.

The Woman Upstairs

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud


Claire Messud has really captured something in this intimate novel about the inner life of a middle-aged, unmarried schoolteacher with artistic aspirations. Narrator Nora Eldridge experiences a kind of awakening when she meets the family of one of her students. She falls in love with each member of the family, the boy, his mother, and his father, loving each in their own way. Nora tells the story of her joy in those loves, her struggles with their inappropriate excesses, the creativity they awaken in her, and the pain of their loss.

I totally disagree with the person who interviewed Messud and said that Nora is unlikeable, that she would not like to be her friend. I found Nora entirely charming, with her irony and self-deprecation, and, yes, her righteous anger. I thought that Nora would make a great friend, if a slightly obsessive one, but she’d try to hide her infatuation, for fear of seeming pathetic. The idea that Nora is unlikeable is closely connected with the idea that anger is not an appropriate emotion for women. Anger opens and closes the book, and so it is probably the dominant emotion that is associated with Nora, but in the middle there is no emotion so dominant as love. In fact, love betrayed is what gives rise to her overwhelming anger, and the anger is huge because the love was, too. I love the book’s final idea, that Nora’s anger is going to drive her to create amazing art, that it will rock her out of her complacency and she will finally live a full and engaged life. If I extend that message to larger society, one of the larger points of the book may be that as long as women are socially discouraged from expressing anger, they will also be hobbled creatively. They won’t have access to the emotional power that anger gives. The ambition gap may really be an anger gap.

This is a book that I wish I had written. I related so much to Nora, especially in her conviction that her life was unimportant and no one cares about her, at least not as much as she cares about them. My life could have easily ended up like Nora’s if I’d made a couple crucial choices differently. I, too, could have been 40, unmarried and childless, in a thankless career with artistic dreams that never came to anything. (The false idea that this is just about the worst fate imaginable for a woman is another topic that this book addresses well.) To explore the inner life of a woman who seems to have been forgotten by the world, and who has internalized that neglect into a kind of emotional asceticism: it seems like an important story, one that needed to be told. The novel’s language was superb, especially Nora’s vibrant, fascinating voice. It’s one of my favorites of the year so far.

Of Woman Born

Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich


This is a big important feminist book about how motherhood is a patriarchal institution that oppresses women, but–and here is the crucial part–it doesn’t have to be. The language and approach is academic; it’s not really something that I think would appeal to a broad popular audience today. This is such an important topic because I feel like motherhood is really where feminism has the most work left to do. For example, the gender wage gap is really a motherhood gap: women earn just as much, if not more, than comparably educated men, until they have children.

Rich is of my grandmother’s generation; her second son was born the same year my mother was. I kept that in mind when some things she said seemed dated or odd. The book was written in 1976, and the edition I read had a foreword written for the ten-year anniversary edition that came out when I was two. Her experience of motherhood seems to have been close to that of the stereotypical 50’s housewife, and she goes into detail about how oppressive she found that lifestyle.

Given my recent experiences, the chapter on the politics of birth was incredibly relevant to me. It was interesting to read about the history of childbirth and what Ina May Gaskin would call the medicalization of birth, the way male OB/GYNs kind of took it over from traditional midwives. I really feel like people have recently become more aware of the problems Rich discusses here, and that things have gotten a lot better in this realm since she wrote this book almost 30 years ago. My birth experience in May was nothing like the horrors described in this chapter. I dealt exclusively with other women. At no point in the process did a man try to take control away from me or tell me what I should do. I was encouraged to trust my body and to be actively involved and mentally present throughout. Thanks to my midwife and all the other women who helped with my labor, including my mother, a volunteer doula, and several nurses, I emerged from the experience feeling strong and empowered. I am really grateful that things have improved as much as they have. It could still get better, though. For example, the nitrous oxide that I used to relieve labor pains could be more widely available. There are many areas, even in big cities, where there is no access to midwives at all. Not to mention the sometimes outrageous costs involved in giving birth.

The chapters on mythology and folklore did not feel as relevant and useful to me as the ones about Rich’s own experiences in her family, the chapter on birth, and the one about what it means to mother a son in a patriarchy.

One of the main things I’m taking away from the book is the difference between motherhood in my personal life and motherhood as a patriarchal institution. The first is good, the second bad, and the more influence the second has on the first, the worse off I will be.

Renegade History of the United States

A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell


I think it’s really interesting to take a contrarian view of history and present things from a different point of view from the one we typically learn. This book defines freedom as the ability to do whatever you want, especially drugs, sex, rock and roll, and not working. This seems like a kind of narrow definition of freedom to me, but it’s close enough that it’s worth considering at least for the amount of time it takes to read the book. Its main argument, that the Protestant work ethic is oppressive, is persuasive and far-reaching enough to have a far reach in American history. It was interesting to read about the effect that mobsters, drunks, and prostitutes, had on history. The discussion of the way that Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants first befriended African Americans, and were seen by racists as their equals, then eventually fought to be seen as “white” through abandoning certain neighborhoods and lifestyles and seeking respectable middle-class jobs, was also very interesting.

However, I found some of the book’s conclusions suspect or potentially inflammatory, even offensive. The worst one might have been the chapter about how slavery wasn’t really all that bad, since, after all, slaves didn’t actually work as hard as poor white farmers, and beatings and family separations were really pretty rare. I don’t think Russell meant to argue that slavery was morally just or that it shouldn’t have been abolished, but virulent racists could certainly use his information to make those arguments. What’s worse, he didn’t put his argument in context by pointing out that if whites ever treated slaves well, it was because they were convinced of their inferiority, that they were incapable of self-motivation, or because the slaves had actually taken power for themselves in a situation where they weren’t supposed to have any. For example, Russell neglected to say that if slaves were not mistreated, it was because they were considered property, and feeding a slave well was analogous to taking your car in for regular maintenance, a wise investment. He didn’t discuss the dehumanizing effect on slaves’ psyche or spirit, though that is what slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass focus on. The book’s discussion of slavery is the most problematic in this way, but the chapter about how FDR was a fascist has some of the same kinds of issues.

Nevertheless, it’s a book worth reading for anyone interested in American history, if for no other reason than because this viewpoint is one that is so rarely seen. Considering multiple angles from which to view the past enriches our understanding of the present. Even if we only consider those alternative ideas for a while before rejecting them.

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner by James Dashner


This book opens with a boy waking up in an unfamiliar place with no memories of his past. Thomas learns that life in the Glade is a strange combination of Lord of the Flies and the myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur. His arrival disrupts the patterns that had been established, and it becomes more urgent than ever that he and the other boys find their way out of the maze.

I wasn’t impressed with the characterization in this novel. There were a few times when Thomas said he felt some strong desire, but he wasn’t sure why. This was explained as an effect of his memory loss, but mostly it served to distance the reader from the character and make him feel wooden and not alive. His relationships were the same way. He becomes friends with a younger boy named Chuck, and their interactions seem formulaic, as if the author was checking off a box marked “build up relationship so that the loss at the end is more tragic.”

The boys in the Glade make their own slang, which was one of the more interesting points of the novel’s sentence-level writing. Dashner did a decent job with this, but it’s  not as good as in other books that make up their own slang, like: the Leviathan series, Ender’s Game, Divergent, Pure, The Passage, Feed, and perhaps best of all, the TV series Firefly and its movie Serenity. Dashner wins the prize for stupidest invented slang word: shuck, used in pretty much exactly the same way as the word it rhymes with.

The book ends with the boys about to learn about the true purpose of the maze. I’m interested in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic aspect of this series, so I think I’ll pick up the next novel to see where the series is going. This book is being made into a movie, so I’ll also want to watch the adaptation.

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green


In this book, the narrator goes to a boarding school and joins a group of rebels led by a girl named Alaska, a free spirit who smokes and drinks a lot, between pulling pranks on the snobby students and administrators. Our protagonist falls in love with her of course. There’s a tragic twist in the middle of the book that leads to the quest for answers alluded to in the title.

Of the three John Green books I’ve read now, I like Looking for Alaska least. Alaska is a blatant Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the trope is less examined here than in the other two books. She’s quirky, damaged, and self-destructive, creative, flirty, and of course, gorgeous. The book is about the narrator’s growth and his experience loving and losing Alaska, not about Alaska’s choices and her journey. He objectifies her and makes her into his Dulcinea. His friend says to him at one point, “It’s like now you only care about the Alaska you made up.” On the bright side, by the end of the book he realizes how his conception of Alaska was flawed. In this way the book does deconstruct the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope to some extent, but not as radically as in Paper Towns. Alaska’s fragility and volatility make her a much more problematic character than the stronger, more self-determined Margo Roth Speigelman.

However, despite these issues, it’s a fun book to read. Green is great at capturing the voices of teen characters, especially smart, verbose ones. I like that he doesn’t shy away from portraying realistic teen sex or from tackling big, hard topics.

Whose Body?

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers


I’ve always heard great things about Dorothy Sayers’s mystery series, and I read Gaudy Night about 5 years ago and liked it a lot, so I am glad I am finally starting the Lord Peter Wimsey series from the beginning. In Whose Body?, the mystery and its solution are both rather convoluted and strange. A dead body turns up randomly in a bathtub, and in a seeming coincidence, a Jewish banker goes missing the same night. The greatest pleasure in this novel is the way the characters talk. Their witty Britishisms are so fun to read. Lord Peter’s sense of humor makes him a delight as a literary detective. This book also gets into his background and reveals his character. As a former WWI soldier, he dealt with some PTSD (or “shell shock”) in the past, and has a flashback or panic attack during this novel’s timeline. A confrontation with a suspicious doctor draws parallels between his war experience and his sleuthing, showing that he risks triggering his PTSD with every mystery he solves and every dangerous situation he confronts. It really shows how strong, determined and admirable Lord Peter is, underneath all of his sparkly banter. I’d highly recommend these novels to anyone who likes mysteries, especially anyone who likes Agatha Christie or P. G. Wodehouse or anything set in England between the wars.

Paper Towns

Paper Towns by John Green


I knew I loved John Green’s writing when I read The Fault in Our Stars. This book isn’t quite as good as that one, probably because the tearjerking potential of a couple of teenage cancer patients is hard to top. In this novel, a boy goes on a night of crazy pranks with the girl-next-door, and then she disappears. Most of the story is then about following clues to track her down and taking a road trip with friends to find her. At its core, this book is about a boy who’s in love with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but instead of existing solely to enrich his life, she teaches him that she’s a person in her own right and that our ideas of the people we know are never exactly the same as who they really are. I’m so impressed with the way Green deconstructs this trope through the story’s action.

For greater clarification, here’s Feminist Frequency’s great video about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and why it’s a sexist trope.

Margo Roth Spiegelman fits the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope because she “is a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero.” But she furthers the storyline of the protagonist, Quentin, through teaching him that she does, in fact, have “a life of her own.” She refuses to fit into the box that Q wants to put her in. Here’s Q figuring that out:

Margot Roth Spiegelman was a person, too. And I had never quite thought of her that way, not really; it was a failure of all my previous imaginings. All along–not only since she left, but for a decade before–I had been imagining her without listening…The fundamental mistake I had always made–and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make–was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a find and precious thing. She was a girl.

I particularly like that Green complicates Margo by making her complicit in her own Manic Pixie-ness. She consciously plays the role of Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the lives of those around her, and when she runs away from home, she’s breaking out of that role. That gives her a lot more agency than the MPDG typically has. Leaving home is a way for her to grow up, declare her independence, and become the star of her own life, rather than a supporting character in others’.

But that’s not all. It turns out that Margo had sort of made Q into a bit of a Dream Boy of a sort herself, if not a Manic Pixie one, and she also realizes her mistake:

“And then you surprise me,” she says. “You had been a paper boy to me all these years–two dimensions as a character on the page and two different, but still flat, dimensions as a person. But that night you turned out to be real…”

What a nice way to flip the tables. I also like that Q and Margo don’t live happily ever after together forever. They learn an important lesson from each other in a specific moment in their lives, and then they each move on in different directions, each enriched by the experience. In that way the ending is more realistic.

Another thing I love about this book is the way Margo, Q, and Green use Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” One of the book’s central questions is whether Whitman is right and we can really inhabit someone else’s point of view so thoroughly that we “become” that person: “I am the man…I suffered…I was there…I do not ask the wounded person how he feels…I myself become the wounded person.” When Q makes the breakthrough in the mystery that finally allows him to find Margo, it is through a moment of “becoming” Margo, imagining what she would do and how she would think. But in the end, after all this drama about how he and Margo had imagined each other in certain two-dimensional roles, Q seems to conclude that he, at least, is not capable of the radical empathy that Whitman proclaims.

On top of all that deeper stuff, the book is really funny, like a teen movie comparable to Superbad in novel form. Q’s friends make some great comic relief and get themselves into some hilarious situations. It’s a fun book with some deeper messages and themes that even quotes my favorite poem. What’s not to like?