Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Harry Potter and Another Reason Why My 8th Graders Are the Best. Seriously.
Cover Art by Mary GrandPre

Rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my students pre-movie was one of my favorite experiences as a teacher.  Epic conversations came out of our meetings, which were a safe haven to bring out each members' inner nerd (I say that in the best of ways, children.  I think the inner nerd is the best part of anyone.) as we discussed character arcs, endings, losses, loves.  I have challenged each of the members of the book club to post an epic book response in the coming week about what moves their hearts the most in the series.  Obviously, I cannot wait to read them and I'll write my own epic post as well. But to help them remember all the glory we discussed--and for it to get all the other Harry Potter fans I know thinking as they reread/watch the movie, I thought I'd post some of their brilliance/some windows into our discussions here. Do not read ahead if you have not finished the series, as our discussions looked at the entire series story arc. 

One of my favorite comments presented in all of the book clubs was when a student said: "I love the passion of Ron, Harry and Hermione--and how they have a quest and something to believe in." I responded with the idea that I think that we can have that in our lives, though sadly without broomsticks and spells and apparating.  But, I teared up a little with the conversation that followed. What do you think?

On Dumbledore.
How even as readers, we (and the characters) didn't feel safe after the end of Book 6. What does this say about the character of Dumbledore? Are there equivalents in our world?

Is it ok to be young and stupid? How do we carry the layers of our pasts with us into adulthood? How do we deal with the flaws of those we look up to? What does all of this teach us about what it means to be human?

Should adults trust children with difficult truths or wait until they have "come of age"?

Do you learn by someone telling you what to do or experiencing it for yourself? Do you agree with the way Dumbledore let Harry learn many truths for himself?

Dumbledore and Grindelwald went in completely different directions after their young adulthood: Grindelwald sought more political power, while Dumbledore went into education.  Which do you think is more valuable?

On Snape.
Is Snape the true hero of the series?

Consider his presence at the Deatheater meetings in early Book 7.  What do you think is going through his mind? What kind of complexities exist for him? If he hadn't known Lily, would he have truly wanted to be there?

What do you think Rowling is suggesting by the fact that Snape was changed through love? What kind of foil does James Potter play--for Snape, for Lily, for Harry?

In what ways are Harry, Snape and Voldemort similar and different?

What is the true value of sacrifice? How did it change Snape? What other characters sacrifice? Was it worth it? What about in our lives? What other literary characters do you know who sacrifice and what was the result?

What do you think Rowling is saying about government? Racism? What connections is she making to history?

What is the definition of evil? Is there anything human left in Voldemort? What do you make of the changes of heart that we see in book 7 (Dudley, Narcissa, esp.) ? What is the difference between Bellatrix and Narcissa?

What do you think about Draco?  What do you think about Dumbledore's final act of grace towards him?

Consider Hermione's loneliness in Book 7. How has she changed since we first met her?

There were some fierce debates about Ron in class 813 and Harry in class 804. What do you think of these two characters and how they have changed?

Why do you think JKR created Ron, Harry and Hermione to be on the fringe of the social life at Hogwarts?

There is a lot of loss across the series.  Why do you think Rowling wrote the story that way? Do you have specific opinions about particular losses?

What inspires Neville's character change?

My students are brilliant. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life as mess.

I saw One Day by David Nicholls all over bookstores and on reading lists in magazines all summer.  When I was last in a bookstore, I decided I couldn't resist and knew I would want a guaranteed enjoyable read post Nicole Krauss.  I started it on Wednesday and finished it Saturday--and did not watch a single crime procedural during that whole time, which says a lot for me.  It follows the friendship of Emma and Dexter from college graduation for about twenty years, but each chapter is dedicated to the same single day of each year, each part of the novel aptly named "early twenties," "late twenties," etc.  I think it's meant to be the kind of book where you fall in love with the characters and close the book wishing you could begin again for the first time.  I read this book quickly, but I can't seem to find the same praise that I read about all summer.

The idea of "who am I becoming?" and which layers of experience stay with a person and which ones fall away is fascinating, especially the older that one gets.  My favorite parts of the book that spoke to this idea were actually the literary quotations that began each part and cut to the essence of Emma and Dexter's friendship, and in turn the concept of the book. They are too long to quote each one, but "Late Twenties" is: "We spent as much money as we could and got as little for it as people could make up their mind to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance  were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did.  To the best of my belief, our case was in the last aspect a rather common one," (from Great Expectations, Dickens).

I just had a hard time with the characters' major flaws: Dexter seeking the next good time and landing in a the bottom of a glass in between, Emma as judgmental and flirting by joking about Dexter's character flaws.  I could not figure out why they even liked one another, and I couldn't find that moment where they actually saw one another. Perhaps it happened in between July Fifteenths? Their messiness should have resonated with me on a human level--but all I could think about was that this reminded me of Mad Men, in that I was watching something a tad too depressing that could go on forever in that state (which I think is the fear that both plagues and paralyzes people).  The scariest part is that the state humanity is often best portrayed in those scenes of bleakness.

What was heartbreaking, though, and what might have assuaged the bleakness of certain parts, is if Emma and Dexter were able to actually say what they meant when they meant it.  Things went unsaid, a great tragedy always--and because it was an omnicient third person narrator, the reader is left knowing what each of them feel, while the person that really needs to know is in the dark.  The book is filled with missed chances, and I suppose, such is life.

Wow. One Day was entertaining. I don't mean to sound like such a cynic on a Sunday morning.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

in the small and ordinary.

"We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door." from Great House by Nicole Krauss

It is the small objects; the ones that look so ordinary but hold the secrets of all that make us human.  The most striking realization I had of this was the first time I walked through the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It was impossible to walk around without a weight on my heart, reading about the beasts humans can be to one another.  Most overbearing for me, though, was the small display of personal effects, collected from victims in the camps: hairbrushes, razors, the small kinds of objects that have no meaning, really, in the context of their daily use. But when considered in light of loss, these tiny items haunted me with the humanity that was denied to their owners, so much so that I had no other option but to retreat to the dark, concrete room where you hear stories of survivors piped in through speakers and let the darkness settle. 

This narrator is an antiques dealer, specializing in objects seized by the Nazis.  He searches all over the world to find the objects that hold the weight in the world within them for some.  I love how Krauss' characters often have a respect for the small details of life that speak volumes of who we are as a people. The fate of this dealer, though, is wrapped in the inability to put the pieces of his broken life back together again--the impossibility to curate a moment that has passed, and he is left standing the burden of unbearable longing, which I think is humanity's signature.