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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Title: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Author: J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Listening Library (Audio)
ISBN: 0807220280

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth book in the Harry Potter series, and for my money, the best. The characters start to get the most development, the world that Rowling has created finally starts to come into full view, and interesting things actually happen. The status quo gets disrupted. This, I like.

I also like the martial arts treatise contained in this book.

For all of you who think I’m on crack, follow me for a moment.

One of the big conflicts that occurs in this book occurs between Dolores Umbrage (the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher), and the rest of the class, lead principally by Harry and Hermione. The conflict centers around, among other things, Umbrage’s belief that Defense Against the Dark Arts can be learned simply by studying theory, without actually practicing the spells involved. In other words, that theoretical knowledge about combat is sufficient to prepare an individual for real combat.

Similarly, the martial arts today are filled with people who believe that by meditating and theorizing about what they “would” or “could” doing a fight is sufficient to prepare themselves for a real confrontation. They avoid any sort of drill or activity that would require them to demonstrate their abilities against a resistant opponent, choosing instead to spout off random theories and made up statistics that support their beliefs.

Harry (who has actually seen combat), and several other students, reject this notion on the grounds that theorizing about violence has never helped them survive anything.Which makes sense, in the real world, and in their own. Preparing for combat requires training where you actually get hit, actually hit something, and generally, well, experience conflict. If you've never,ever, tried to do something to a person who didn't want you to do it to them, you're in for a rude shock the first time it happens. In the end,Harry's method of actually training to fight seems to be born out as the better one, at least to me. Of course, I happen to agree with Harry's point of view, but I think it's significant that Umbrage seems largely incapable of defending herself when not backed up by a horde of flunkies and paperwork.

Other random thoughts:

The ending disappointed me a little bit. I liked things better with Dumbledore on the lam, and Harry stuck in a school turned against him. That, and the constant removal/offing of Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers is getting old. Personally, I’m starting to suspect that the series will end with Harry taking on that position, if he doesn’t actually kick it first. Either seems possible.

I get why people think some of the characters don’t have a lot of personality, though I think their being fleshed out better as the series goes on. What I don’t get is why people argue that Malfoy DOES have a fleshed out personality. He’s an evil jerk. He’s an evil jerk in book one, and he’s STILL an evil jerk in book five. Sure, he doesn’t like Harry & Co., but I don’t really see how that’s a more nuanced personality than Harry’s or Hermione’s.A cardboard villain isn’t somehow more “real” than a cardboard hero.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Addendum to a review: Hope and Honor

A few months ago I reviewed a Maj. Gen. Sid Shachnow’s biography, Hope and Honor. It is, as I said then, an excellent book about a remarkable individual.

Last Monday night, my Uncle David received an award for his work with CAMERA (,and I had the opportunity to listen to a number of interesting people speak,including Shachnow, and James Woolsey, the former head of the CIA.Woolsey’s speech was pretty interesting—whether you agree with his politics or not, the man is incredibly well educated and articulate. It was cool too listen to him,and if nothing else, it makes it clear how totally useless the"sound-bite" news that most of us get actually is. There's too much information in this world to be understood in 30-minute news briefs.

Shachnow turns out to be a real joker, something that does not come across well in the book at all. He’s very deadpan, but very funny. His wife Arlene was there too, another very nice person. It was very neat to get to talk to both of them, even if just for a few minutes.

There were a lot of other neat and interesting people there. I got to speak with a retired coast guard admiral,a former FBI...something. I can't remember how high up in the chain of command he went. Amost Yadlin, one of the Israeli fighter pilots who took out Iran's nuclear weapons program in '81 was there,but I didn't have a chance to talk with him at all. Unfortunately, this was one of those events where there are far more people to talk to than there is time to talk to them. I was wiped out from working and catching an early morning train, and had trouble keeping up with who the people I DID meet were.

Still, a neat experience overall. Shachnow is a very interesting person, and his book is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Title:Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Author: J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 0439139600

Many years ago, I read the first Harry Potter book. And lo, I was under whelmed. It wasn’t that it was BAD, per se. It was a half-way decent kids book. But I didn’t understand the big fuss that everyone was making over it. I saw the movie, and still didn’t understand the fuss.

Flash forward a few years, and I figured “hey, I’m really interested in fantasy.Rowling is having a huge effect on that genre. I might as well read the rest of these f-ing things.” So I read book two, and lo, it was a little better. And then I read book three, and lo, I started to actually like this series. Now I’ve finished book four, and am listening to book five, and have to admit…I’ve become pretty hooked. It’s a good read. Book five actually has a lot of interesting stuff I want to talk about, particularly in relation to the martial arts (ya didn’t see that coming, did you? DID YOU? Ok, it’s me, maybe you did.), but I’ll confine myself to book four, since I’ve actually finished that one.

So,Goblet of Fire, like the other HP books, sends Harry back to school for another year of antics and mysteries. The main plot revolves around the Triwizard Tournament, a competition between representatives from three schools of wizarding, which ends up with four contestants, because our boy Harry somehow gets shoved into the tourney. Hilarity/danger ensues. So does some teenage awkwardness, for those who like that sort of thing. And you start to get a sense of a larger world, much in the way that most teenagers do.

Gah.It’s hard for me to say much about this book, at this point. It’s very good, and engaging, but in a way, I feel like it’s just a bridging point. It sets up a lot of the bad crap that’s happening in book five, and that’s what’s occupying my brain when I think of Harry Potter now. While I was reading book four, however, I was quite hooked. Rowling is actually a pretty good mystery writer, which is really what a lot of these books are. She does a great job of dropping clues in a manner that makes it obvious only after the fact…she kind of reminds me of Timothy Zahn in that way. Which is weird, because the two are otherwise quite different.

Not much more to say about this one. More once I’m done with book five.

Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

Title: Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
Author: Robert E. Howard
Publisher: DelRey
ISBN: 0345461509

“He was…a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan…A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things…Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

“Such was Solomon Kane,” indeed.

This book rocks. As much as I’d like to try and sound clinical about this—screw it. I’m not a literary critic, I’m just a guy who loves to read, and loves fantasy in particular. I already knew I liked REH after I finished the Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, but this collection really cinched it for me.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of short stories and poems that focus on Howard’s other, not-quite as well-known hero, Solomon Kane. Kane is everything that the quote above suggests, and then some. I actually find him to be a pretty interesting character, in that he is so full of contradictions, and also in that he’s remarkably self-unaware. In one of the earliest stories of the collection, Kane is traveling through England, where he comes across a dying girl, the sole survivor (for about five minutes) of a bandit attack on her village. She dies in Kane’s arms.

Kane proceeds to wage a long guerrilla war against the bandits, until it at last comes down to him and their leader. The two duel, and the leader escapes, and flees to AFRICA. So Kane does what any vengeance-obsessed lunatic would do…and pursues him. There’s a wonderful moment where the bandit turns to him and asks him why he’s doing this…and Kane really doesn’t know. He just feels like it should be done.

Most of the stories in this collection follow a chronology of a sort. Kane spends a great deal of time wandering in Africa, following some undefined and undefinable urge to explore. Along the way, he encounters all sorts of strange demons and beasts, some of which are almost Lovecraftian in their nature (Not too surprising. Howard and Lovecraft corresponded, and indeed, were friends.). There’s some neat poetry in the collection too, as well as a few story fragments that I believe have not been published before. Seeing the fragments is neat, all though some of them are so long, you wish Howard had finished the damn thing before he died.

Good stuff. If you like adventure, fantasy, or pulpy-goodness, go read this.