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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Potter’

crocuses snow diptych

I flipped the kitchen calendar to April this weekend, as a mix of snow and sleet swirled down outside the windows. This wasn’t quite the April Fool’s blizzard of 20 years ago, but it was still a proper nor’easter: more like February than April. Both Nature’s clock and my internal one seem to be off this year.

It’s been a month since Ash Wednesday, a month that has swung wildly between sunny days that coaxed the crocuses to lift up their faces to the blue sky, and freezing, bitter winds accompanied by snow, sleet and rain. I suppose we were all fooled by the mild days in late February. (I know I was.)

Lent is typically a hard season for me: I do not naturally dwell in darkness, and Lent asks us to look steadily at our human frailties, the flaws inherent in our nature that trip us up again and again. We begin, on Ash Wednesday, with the words that say it all in one sentence: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year on Ash Wednesday, I sat with a handful of other Harvard folks in the boxy white pews of Memorial Church, listening to the prayers and readings, reciting the litany of confession. But I was thinking about two things, not (at first glance) related: a poem I’d heard that morning at the daily prayer service, and Lord Voldemort.

The poem, by Jan Richardson, is called “Blessing the Dust,” and Alanna read it aloud in her clear, ringing voice:

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

At many churches, the dried palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service are burned to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday. The ashes are what is left after a fire: the scorched remains of what was once fresh and green. They mark us, smeared onto our foreheads by the finger of a minister or a loved one, along with those words I can’t forget: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Earlier this winter, I reread the Harry Potter series, again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve turned back to this story, diving joyfully into the world of Hogwarts and relishing Harry’s adventures with Ron and Hermione. I read them, this time around, with a friend who loves them as much as I do, which was the most fun I’ve had reading anything in a very long time.

On Ash Wednesday, my thoughts turned back to Voldemort, and how the insistent reminder of Lent – that we are dust – is the very thing he worked so hard, all his life, to deny.

Voldemort – when he was still Tom Riddle, young and friendless – always yearned to believe he was special, set apart, somehow above the rules and limits placed on other people. When he learned about his magical ability, he began searching for a way to make himself immortal, which led him down a dark and dangerous path. He always had a deep and unusual fear of death, and this obsession led him to experiment with Horcruxes: splitting his soul into multiple pieces, killing again and again, trying any means he could find to achieve a semblance of immortality. His followers – never friends – were called Death Eaters; his quest to find Harry, and kill him, was born out of the terror of his own mortality. Voldemort never believed Dumbledore’s assertion that the limits of our humanity can also be a gift.

Magic in the Harry Potter universe (which bears some resemblance to faith in our own world) provides no guarantee of immortality. Many witches and wizards live long lives, but some of them – like Dumbledore, Harry’s parents and eventually Harry himself – end up placing their lives at risk, even giving them up, to defend those they love.

The walk Harry takes into the Forbidden Forest near the end of Deathly Hallows echoes Jesus’ journey to Calvary: the action of a man, gifted but mortal after all, intent on giving up his life for the sake of others. Voldemort, by contrast, hid behind his own twisted experiments and machinations until the very end. He never would have understood the words of Richardson’s poem: he would not have believed in “the blessing / that lives within / the ancient ashes.”

We are two weeks away from Easter: from the day when we emerge, blinking, into the brightness of the Garden on a Sunday morning, into the joy that has been winking at us, calling to us from around the corner. I love the Holy Week narrative and I know we need it all: the deep, utterly despairing dive into darkness, the mournful songs of Maundy Thursday and the howling grief of Good Friday. I know we need the suspension of Holy Saturday: the world holds its breath, waiting to see if the promise will be fulfilled.

I am ready for the joy of Easter Sunday: the blaze of light, the birdsong, the proclamation of the sentence carved on James and Lily Potter’s grave: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But we are not quite there yet, and even when we get there, some of the old sorrow will still linger. The glory of Easter doesn’t negate the wounds of our humanity. It heals them, but it does not make them disappear.

So as I walk (carefully) down sidewalks still edged with melting snow, I am holding Richardson’s words close. I am thinking about our humanity, about the frail, soft, vulnerable parts of ourselves that Voldemort feared, but which give us (among other gifts) our ability to love. I am hopeful, as Richardson is, that I will see

what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

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not just jane book darwins

In the wake of my NYC trip and the presidential transition, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Multiple secret plots, Horcruxes, Quidditch and so much snogging: I love this sixth installment of Harry’s story. It is, in many ways, his last chance to be a teenager. The ending makes me weep every single time, but it’s still so good.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos
I adore Les Mis: I fell head over heels for the musical as a teenager and loved the book when I read it a few years ago. Bellos chronicles the inspiration, writing process and publication of Hugo’s masterpiece, with fascinating asides about language, color, coinage, politics and more. Accessible and interesting for Les Mis fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
An engaging, often funny medieval tale of three French children with unusual powers – plus a greyhound who just might be a saint. Fun, clever and moving. (Also: best subtitle ever.) Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Satanic Mechanic, Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria van Harten, who writes the recipe and love advice column for her local newspaper, gets drawn into a police investigation when she sees not one, but two, men murdered before her eyes. An engaging mystery set in South Africa, which is as much about Tannie Maria’s life and relationships as it is about catching the killer. Lots of Afrikaans words and delicious food descriptions. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
The final, grim, heartbreaking, wonderful installment of a story I adore. It felt astonishingly timely, and as usual, I didn’t want it to end. Lupin’s words on Potterwatch struck me particularly this time: “Everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.”

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, Shelley DeWees
Everyone knows about Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters – and they are amazing. But before (and concurrently with) Jane and Charlotte, there were other groundbreaking British writers who were female, feminist, wildly talented and generally badass. A fascinating, highly readable account of seven such women. So good. Also recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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three lives bookstore interior

I’ve been (not surprisingly) digging into stacks of books as 2017 begins, and I’ve found some gems this month. Here’s the latest roundup:

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, Isabel Vincent
When Isabel Vincent’s friend Valerie asked her to look in on her recently widowed father, Isabel never dreamed she’d make a new friend. But she did – and this lovely memoir recounts many of their dinners á deux. Edward is a great cook, but also gives sound, practical advice, and Vincent writes their story with warmth and charm.

The Lost Book of the Grail, Charlie Lovett
Arthur Prescott is happily ensconced in his life in Barchester: teaching English at the university, spending untold hours in the library and secretly searching for the Holy Grail. But the arrival of an attractive young American who is digitizing the library’s manuscripts upends Arthur’s world. Lovett deftly moves back and forth in time between this present-day story and other historical eras (starting in the 500s). A fascinating, fun literary mystery – the third Lovett book I’ve read and possibly his best yet. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 28).

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling
This series gets bigger, deeper, darker and more heartbreaking with every book. I love this story so much, and I’m still loving my reread-along with a friend, which has prompted multiple discussions on everything from Rowling’s clever wordplays to the big questions of life and destiny at the heart of the series.

A Country Between: Making a Home Where Both Sides of Jerusalem Collide, Stephanie Saldaña
After falling in love with a French novice monk in Syria, American writer Saldaña ended up making a home with her new husband on a street in the middle of Jerusalem. A luminous, thoughtful, achingly lovely memoir about home, family, time and searching for the beautiful, even – especially – in broken and hard places. Stunning. I also loved Saldaña’s previous memoir, The Bread of Angels. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

News of the World, Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kidd, an itinerant news reader in post-Civil War Texas, is asked to return a young girl, Johanna, to her family after she has been “recovered” from the Kiowa tribe. Slowly, as Kidd and Johanna make the treacherous journey from north Texas to San Antonio, they form a tight, tenuous bond. A slim story told in spare, powerful prose.

Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
Madeline Whittier hasn’t left her house in 17 years, due to a rare immune disease. But when a boy named Olly moves in next door, she starts questioning the protected life she’s been living. A sweet, heartbreaking, funny, wonderful YA novel. I read it in one sitting.

A Trail Through Time, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell, time-jumping historian, has been yanked out of her own world by the Muse of History and deposited in a very similar one, where she and the man she loves are trying to outrun the Time Police. (Confused yet?) This fourth installment in Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s series gave me whiplash, but it was so much fun.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith. Pictured above: the interior of Three Lives & Co. in NYC, where I spent a very happy hour this week.

What are you reading?

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december books 2016 christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. How were your holidays? I hope they were lovely.

I spent the first part of my Christmas break sick in a hotel room (ugh), but did manage to squeeze in a lot of reading, both while I was sick and after I got well. So as we head into 2017, here’s the last reading roundup of 2016:

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Katie Brenner is living her dream life in London – and trying to rise above the non-Instagrammable parts. When she’s let go, she heads home to Somerset to help her dad launch a glamping business. Everything is fine until her high-maintenance ex-boss, Demeter, shows up. Fluffy and fun with a few deeper insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

A Study in Scarlet Women
, Sherry Thomas
When Charlotte Holmes is caught in flagrante delicto with a married man, it’s the end of her reputation – but only the beginning of her career as Sherlock Holmes. This was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a highly entertaining “Watson.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts is chock full of adventures – the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament – but the shadow of Lord Voldemort draws ever closer. I’m rereading these books in tandem with a friend this time around, and it is so much fun.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I reread this gentle Scottish novel every December. This year I lingered in it, sometimes reading only a few pages a day. I love this story of heartbreak, quiet hope, and the ways community saves us.

A Cast of Vultures, Judith Flanders
London book editor Sam Clair is juggling cranky colleagues, nosy consultants and an epic hangover – and that’s before she gets drawn into a mystery involving arson, missing neighbors and potential drug dealing. Witty and well plotted; better than its two predecessors. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford
Lucy Bluecrowne is utterly at home on her father’s privateering vessel, the titular Left-Handed Fate. But as the Fate sails the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Lucy and her crew are drawn into intrigue with the French, the Americans and the mysterious citizens of Nagspeake. A great adventure story with a hint of magic. (I also loved Milford’s previous novel, Greenglass House.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Dec 2012 003

Rather suddenly, it’s December, and I am a bit behind on the reading updates. But here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Iron Cast, Destiny Soria
Ada and Corinne are best friends in 1920s Boston who work for a notorious gangster in exchange for his protection. (Both girls are hemopaths: they have a blood condition which allows them to perform magic, but causes a strong aversion to iron.) Rich, complex characters, a twisty plot and a setting I adored, plus strong women in spades. (From the staff recs shelf at the Harvard Book Store.)

Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Saif Ghobash
Ghobash is the UAE’s ambassador to Russia and the father of two teenage sons. In a time when Islam is beset by extremism and anger, Ghobash shares his personal journey as a Muslim and some wise advice for his boys. Thoughtful, engaging and so timely – we all desperately need to hear from people who aren’t just like us, in this moment of fear and upheaval. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 3, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
I love this series so much, and it’s been a few years: it was time for another reread. The first book always goes fast, and it’s fun to discover the wizarding world right along with Harry and his friends.

The Wicked City, Beatriz Williams
After discovering her husband cheating, Ella Gilbert moves out – to a building in the West Village that might be haunted. Williams uses Ella’s narrative to frame the story of Geneva Rose “Gin” Kelly, who escaped backwoods Maryland to build a life in 1920s NYC. But Gin’s bootlegging stepfather, Duke, won’t let her alone. Witty and deliciously scandalous, like all Williams’ books – though I found Gin’s story much more compelling than Ella’s. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 17, 2017).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling
Rowling’s second book delves more deeply into the wizarding world, the (first) rise of Lord Voldemort and the odd similarities between Voldemort and Harry. (Plus it’s so much fun. Flying cars! Quidditch! More spellwork! And Fawkes the phoenix.)

Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, Melissa Sweet
It’s no secret that I love E.B. White’s work – both his classic children’s books and his wry, witty letters and essays. Sweet tells White’s story through collage and illustration in this lovely children’s biography. (Bonus: adorable dachshunds!) Bought at Three Lives & Co. in NYC.

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte
I love Whyte’s poetry and also enjoyed this collection of brief, lyrical essays on words such as “solace,” “work,” “courage,” “heartbreak,” “Istanbul” and many others. A little esoteric and very lovely.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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idlewild books nyc interior

It’s been quite a month around here – which has meant, among other things, less reading than usual. But the books are still helping keep me sane, so here’s the latest roundup:

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and Jack Tiffany
I am a longtime, avid Harry Potter fan, and I had mixed feelings about this new story/script, before and after reading it. Fun to spend more time in Rowling’s world, and the characters are (mostly) still beautifully themselves. But it lacked the depth and power of the original seven books. I’m still glad I read it.

Precious and Grace, Alexander McCall Smith
I enjoy McCall Smith’s gentle mystery series about Precious Ramotswe, who runs the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, Botswana. I am less fond of her assistant, Grace Makutsi, but the dynamic between the two women is always interesting. This one wasn’t really a mystery, more a gentle reflection on life and forgiveness, but it was charming. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is placed under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel and sets about building a life for himself within the hotel’s walls. A witty, philosophical, engaging story – Rostov is charming and so is his supporting cast. I especially loved the hotel’s chef, Émile, and maitre d’, Andrey. (I also relished Towles’ debut, Rules of Civility.)

To Capture What We Cannot Keep, Beatrice Colin
Widowed and penniless, Caitriona Wallace takes a job as a companion to two young people heading to Paris in 1887. There, all three of them become entangled with Émile Nouguier, an engineer working with Gustave Eiffel to build his tower. Beautiful descriptions, though I found every single character (except Eiffel himself) frustratingly passive. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 29).

The Shattered Tree, Charles Todd
This eighth entry in Todd’s Bess Crawford series finds Bess (battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth) tracking down a mysterious soldier in October 1918. These books are somber but well written, and I like Bess (though she does insist on thinking she’s invincible). A solid historical mystery.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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