Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Seventh and Final Installment in the Epic Saga of Harry Potter

First off, let me state to my loyal readers: if you have not yet completed the book, and don't want to see any spoilers, please stop reading now. Otherwise, scroll down.

OK. I hope I've gotten it far enough down so that those who don't want to see any spoilers have been able to opt out. I received my copy from Barnes and Noble at 1:15 AM, and finished reading around 6:15 this evening. I really do believe this was the best installment in the series, and brought it to the perfect conclusion.

For nearly two years now, I've been bragging to anyone who would listen that I knew the whereabouts of one of the Horcruxes Harry was looking for. I was pleased to see that I was right: the locket had been stolen by Sirius's brother, Regulus A. Black, and was kicking around Grimmauld Place (the Order encounters it at the beginning of the 5th book, when they are cleaning the house.) It, in turn was stolen by Mundungus Fletcher, who used it as a bribe for...well, it's not that important. The point is that I was right. I am very clever!

Or maybe not. I was one of the very few in the anti-Snape camp. I thought he was just being himself when he killed Dumbledore. The truth is that "himself" was sadder than I'd ever imagined. The pro-Snape crowd was right about him. A sad and lonesome life he led, and the full story will cause readers to view his actions in previous volumes much differently.

Other than the location of the Horcrux, I really didn't know what was going to happen in this book. I couldn't even speculate. While I couldn't see it ending with Voldemort triumphing, I knew from previous installments that Rowling would not flinch from killing Harry if she felt that was the way the series needed to end. My one prediction was that this volume would have an extremely high body count, and it did. I count nine deaths on the Order side alone. As any reviewer will tell you, or any mildly observant reader will know, the books get progressively darker, and it's all been leading up to this, to war. Right from the beginning, it's clear that playtime is over and that the Death Eaters are prepared to be more aggressive than at any point in their shameful history. Harry suffers a loss right away, and a terrible loss for the Order follows quickly on its heels.

One strength of this series is that it presents Harry, and the other heroes, as human. They fight. They demonstrate remarkably bad judgment on many, many occasions. Sometimes, they act selfishly and thoughtlessly. One hero, however, had always seemed to be above it all. Albus Dumbledore was a mix of the ideal teacher, the ideal parent, and even a bit of God himself thrown in there. He was wise, kind, and powerful, an asset to anyone on his side and a threat to anyone who wasn't, not just in terms of strength but in terms of morality. Dumbledore seemed to be an ideal to which the rest of us could only hope to aspire, yet in this book, it's revealed that he was not so perfect after all. He, too, had selfishness and pride in his past that led to the death of an innocent.

Good fantasy needs to be about more than the artificial world in which it exists. To me, the take-home message of this series is the power of love, all kinds of love. All kinds are demonstrated in this book. There's the love that exists between friends. There's the love that comes from a warm and loving family. The slavish, hero-worship love for one who's saved you from a terrible fate, that would cause you to lay down your life for that person. The kind of ill-advised, ill-conceived, wildly romantic love that, on occasion, ends up working out despite all odds. The love that you develop for one you respect and admire. Even the unrequited, desperate love that you're alone with in the dark can be a powerful and remarkable force. Given the situation in my personal life right now, which is still very much on my mind and which has another half which I haven't posted about here, it was a message that helped me a lot and made me feel better.

I think that most Harry Potter fans will be satisfied with the conclusion to which his saga has come. I suspect that I'm not alone among fans, however, in saying that I'll miss all this. I can't think of anything else in pop culture that has really generated this same type of excitement, at least not in my lifetime. Everyone from kids who barely outweigh the heftier installments of the series, to stuffy-looking stockbrokers, to grandparents, have gotten in on it. I will miss the excitement and the anticipation, but I loved the journey. I sincerely hope that we have not heard the last from JK Rowling.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Countdown is into Its Final Hours!!!

In just over 24 hours from now, we will all be holding the new Harry Potter book in our hands!!!! I am going to attend the Harry Potter party at my local Barnes and Noble. I may also sneak across the street -- I believe the Borders Express at the mall may be holding a Deathly Hallows ball. I will post pics here at some point over the weekend.

Another blog that I read a while back (I can't remember who, I'm really sorry!) called the Harry Potter books "the ultimate loss leader." I see the loss part -- as a B&N member, I got it for $15 below list price. But the "leader" part worked on me tonight.

Until I moved back here, I didn't realize how much my old life sucked. Living alone, with no friends or family in the area and no opportunity to talk to anyone at work (literally none -- I went days without seeing my co-workers, and when I did, we'd just talk about generic work stuff.) It took its toll on me, I think, and made me kind of emotionally dead to the point where I'd be able to wander through Barnes and Noble, like to buy someone a present, without even being interested at the other books.

Tonight I saw lots of interesting books. Bright Lights, Big Ass by the author of Bitter is the New Black. Dedication by those who brought us the train wreck that was Citizen Girl (they do know how to make them look appealing). The new Augustyn Burrows. The sequel to the Tales of the City series (just the title, Michael Tolliver Lives, made me happy).

But the one I took home with me was a nonfiction. I don't expect to get to it for a while, but I will eventually. Ironically, I found it in the art section, which I was pretending to look at because I saw a guy through the window and I wanted to see if he was cute or not. He wasn't, but this book looks pretty good. It's called The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums. Well, I'm pretty sure they left out the museum I work at, but the rest of the world's greatest museums. Call me a freak, but I like the dark side of anything, including my chosen profession. I will keep you posted. And, like everyone with a book blog, look for a post on the end of Harry Potter sooner rather than later.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Resurrected from the Dead: In Memory of a Relationship

Where do relationships go when they die? Looking back on my own boyfriends, I see that I have even forgotten the broad outlines of some of those relationships, let alone the feelings that inspired them. I can remember thinking that I'd love those boys forever, that I'd lay down my life for them, that I'd never love anyone else. I can't remember why, sometimes, though.

But there is an exception lurking among my past relationships. The one that got away, that left me after a tumultuous, passionate year for another woman, a woman that (I just learned this week) he married and moved to Scotland with. When he left me, he wasn't doing well in many ways. His mother had died a few short months beforehand. He was only 19. He'd lost his job, he was very depressed, and he'd told me he'd thought about killing himself. I'd worried about him for many years. I googled his name. I tried to contact his cousin to find out what became of him. I did a deed search on his old house. I even paid $19.95 for one of those reports. I'd resigned myself long ago to never knowing the end of the story, so it was a real shock to hear it this week, just casually, from a co-worker who is the mother of his best friend. To me, it was like he was resurrected from the dead.

If a new ending to the Lord of the Rings series had been uncovered and printed in the paper, the first thing fans of the series would do after reading it would be to go back and re-read the rest of the books. And so it is with this relationship. I've been thinking, all week long, about things I haven't remembered in years.

I remembered going up to his family's camp in upstate New York, the fun of riding ATVs together (the only time I ever have), and how romantic it was to drink hot chocolate and dry out our clothes by the campfire later on.

I remembered sneaking beers out from a reception at work, and sneaking them into the drive-in and drinking them and watching the movie under a blanket in the back of his pickup truck.

I remembered hiking down by Devil's Hole with him on our first date. Romantic, and original as hell. Most guys just take you to Applebee's or something.

I remembered our very first kiss, during the fireworks at the Labor Day fair, and kissing for hours in the car in my driveway.

I remembered buying a sexy nightgown for the hotel room we got the night of our company Christmas party, and how little sleep we got that night.

I remembered getting all dressed up to have lunch at his house before work when we first started dating, even though I knew my outfit would get totaled at work (I worked with developmentally disabled people; open-toed high heels are not a good thing to wear to work).

I remembered eating dinner together on the river at the turn of the millennium, and pulling over in the middle of nowhere at midnight to kiss.

I remembered hanging out with the cousin I later tried to contact, and his friends, and how they got scammed into buying a bag of oregano on Main Street and his cousin wouldn't admit it and smoked three bowls of it by himself.

I remembered how I bought him a bonsai tree for Christmas, and then learned that he'd bought himself the exact same tree from the same place at the mall. When I went on a fishing expedition to make sure it was him who'd mentioned the bonsai and not some other friend, apparently, it reminded him of how much he wanted one and he bought it for himself!

I remembered going to Planet Hollywood in Niagara Falls with him, and how he ordered some badass manly drink with whiskey or gin or some damn thing, and he took one sip of it and couldn't finish it. I shared my fruity girly concoction with him.

I remembered all the times we walked together over the Rainbow Bridge to Canada, and how I never got tired of how terrifying and romantic the Falls were; they made every night special.

I know I made it sound perfect, and made him sound like the perfect guy. It wasn't, and he wasn't. We broke up twice before the last time, and the stress of it all made him be horrible to me sometimes. I was having trouble adjusting to life after college, and I'm sure I was horrible to him on occasion too. The way it ended, of course, was a horrible and painful shock. I think I helped him through everything, though, and that's not a small thing. I'm glad he's happy now, although part of me continues to wish that it had been me.

But despite the way it all ended, I'm glad I had it at all. If I could do it again, knowing that I couldn't change the outcome, I would.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Best. Bumper sticker. Ever!

I saw this bumper sticker on a car today and almost died laughing, catching weird looks from a woman with a car full of stuffed cows. If you like, you can get them at

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em that I got no cerebellum

Ever since I started reading The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and his tragic quest to rid the world of mental illness by Jack el-Hai, I've been trying to decide which line from the Ramones' "Teenage Lobotomy" would be the title of this post. As el-Hai addresses in his prologue, "lobotomy" has kind of become a shorthand for stupidity. When it's considered seriously, of course, it has all sorts of negative connotations. So el-Hai's book is a valuable work, as it considers the man behind the treatment in the context of his times, and presents the tale of a flawed, driven man, both respected as an innovator and reviled as a cowboy among his peers.

Walter Freeman did not actually invent the procedure, but is credited with popularizing it in the US. He got the idea from a Portuguese colleague, and refined it several times, along with a partner. At this time (1920s and 1930s), there was nothing that could be done for mentally ill people. They were warehoused in institutions for decades. There is an excellent exhibit touring New York State of suitcases that had been found in the attic of a now-closed mental institution of this era. Using case records, they talked briefly about the people that packed them. Some of them spent 40 or more years in the institution.

No doctor in his (they were mostly "he's") right mind would choose, then, to specialize in mental illness. Freudian analysis was a relatively new idea and was just starting to take hold, but for the most part, it was a monumental, hopeless task, and the best they could hope for was that the mentally ill person would remain relatively physically healthy and not harm themselves or anyone else. That was a successful treatment. So when Freeman and his partner, neurosurgeon James Watts, developed the lobotomy, which provided hope, it was very warmly received.

The word "lobotomy" conjures up someone with no affect and little intelligence today, but as el-Hai points out, those were the failures. Those who were successfully lobotomized enjoyed a remission of debilitating symptoms. Some got well enough to hold a job and maintain personal relationships. With others, the only improvement seen was that they could be cared for at home instead of in an institution. But with the burgeoning population of asylums, this was no small thing.

The man himself is as interesting as the context of his times. Walter Freeman was a driven, intelligent father of six, and also a real showman. When he was a lecturer, he taught himself to make anatomical drawings on the chalkboard with both hands at once. He was so popular that, during the depths of the Depression, his students would bring dates to his class. He did not curb this tendency when demonstrating his technique. A refinement of his technique was called the "ice-pick lobotomy" because that was what Freeman used. He would go in through the eye with an icepick, and would often line up 20 or 25 pre-selected patients at a hospital and do them all in one day. He'd use a rubber mallet because it made a better show, even though there were special hammer that doctors used. This earned him a lot of disdain among his colleagues, and heightened the sense that he'd gone too far.

el-Hai's biography is extremely thorough. It passes the Maxwell Perkins test: I would absolutely know Walter Freeman if I met him on the street, as well as many of the other players in the story (Freeman left behind a great volume of material). It describes in great detail the mechanics of the procedure, and why Freeman and Watts felt it would be beneficial. It charts the rise and fall of the procedure, and makes a stunning claim of a possible re-emergence of psychosurgery as a treatment for mental illness. This made the book kind of difficult for me. I mentioned in my last that I haven't taken a bio class since I was old enough to drive. Someone with a strong background in biology would probably be able to write a much better review of it than I did.

But el-Hai refrains from making judgments, leaving this difficult task to the reader. Was lobotomy a boon to the field? There's no question that it was a brutal procedure that would go terribly wrong when it failed, but it brought about a vital change in thinking. It helped us to think of mental illness as treatable, as possibly a phase in someone's life rather than a permanent judgment. Maybe someone could get a mental illness, improve and close the chapter, just like when one breaks a leg. At times, Freeman doesn't seem to have much respect for his patients (such as when he parades them in front of his students in their pajamas) but he also kept in touch with many of them for decades, and devoted his last years to tracking down hard-to-find ones, driving thousands of miles to learn their fates.

Freeman lived long enough to see his work fade into obscurity, and that's a regrettable fate for such a driven, dedicated person. Whether the procedure deserved the gruesome reputation it's earned, though, remains an open question. Although it's not an easy read for someone without a medical background, I do recommend this book to anyone who's interested in mental illness. It definitely changed the way I thought about lobotomies.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

A stopgap apology

I don't really know how many of you out there in Blogland are reading faithfully. The site meter only expresses my readership in terms of a count. Do these people check in with me every day? Am I a part of your daily blog rounds, or are you just stopping by, perhaps via the "Bestest Blog Ever" or "Random Blog" buttons? I don't know, and unless you comment on this post (hint hint) I'll never know.

But I know how it makes me feel when I visit one of my favorite blogs and find it unchanged from one day to the next, so I just wanted to pop in and say hi. I started a new job this week and it's been a big adjustment. My last job was very slow, at a very static place, and offered few opportunities for interacting with another human, even a co-worker. This job is the 180-degree opposite. It's been extremely hectic (I spent a grand total of 20 minutes at my desk on Friday), very social, and I've had to learn a whole bunch of new information very quickly. On top of this, I have to commute now, with actual traffic (my last job was about 4 miles away from home), so it's been an adjustment. On Friday, I fell asleep around 9PM and didn't wake up until nearly 11 on Saturday.

So what did I choose to read this week? Something mindless and fun, perhaps another piece of the Big Stone Gap series like I'd been planning? Or did I continue my colonial history theme (a theme which I learned to my chagrin that our illustrious president has also chosen for his summer reading. Well, I have heard good things about the American Girl series too!) No, I chose to read a book about the man who pioneered the lobotomy procedure in America. I certainly have learned a lot, but it's not been terribly easy for one who hasn't taken a biology class since she was legal to drive. (I might've taken an anatomy elective in high school, but they made you dissect a cat. And I mean MADE YOU: their position was that since it was an elective, you shouldn't take it if you didn't wish to cut up a cat. I sat that one out, thanks.)

At any rate, I hope to have a review of this book for you in the next couple of days. I've also dusted off my old library card and am excited about the chance to revisit the Buffalo and Erie County Library system, which was one of the best in the country at one point. It has fallen on hard times in recent years, and even closed several branches, so I'm eager to see how it's getting on.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Social Critic's Dream

In every women's studies class I took in college, the film Imitation of Life came up -- a remarkable achievement for a film that was over 40 years old at the time. I still haven't seen either version (there were two: one with Lana Turner and one with Claudette Colbert), but when I found the book the movies were based on, by Fannie Hurst, at a library used book sale, I snapped it up.

I finished it earlier today, and am curious to see the movie now, although the book wasn't all that great. The book tells the tale of Bea Pullman, to whom tragedy visited early and often. Bea grew up in Atlantic City, and the warmth of her nuclear family was shattered at 17, when her mother died. Her father decided that she should marry their lodger, Mr. Pullman, because it "wouldn't look right otherwise" (in the first of many holes in the story, since having lodgers was a common practice in their community). The marriage lasts about eight months before Mr. Pullman is killed in a railway accident, just long enough for Bea to get pregnant and for her father to have a debilitating stroke. Forced into supporting her family, she hits upon the idea of continuing to operate her late husband's maple-syrup sales business.

It is at this point that she meets Delilah, who she hires to take care of her baby and her father. Delilah's story mirrors Bea's: roughly the same age, widowed with a young daughter. The key difference, of course, is that Delilah is black. Delilah moves in, and their business takes off and becomes a national corporation. The two find material success, but (as is the point of the book, I guess) never happiness.

Social critics could not dream up a better character than Delilah in discussing stereotypes of black women. She is one through and through. She knows her place (we know this because she tells Bea over and over again that she knows her place). She puts the needs of Bea's daughter before her own. She works hard, but declines all earthly rewards, even though Bea offers again and again. Even when the company is raking in millions of dollars, she won't even accept a raise from her original salary. Her rewards, as she says over and over, will come in the afterlife.

Delilah's saintliness is rewarded by her own daughter disowning her. This is another aspect of the movie that the social critics love, although it's played down in the book (the story truly belongs to Bea). The back of the book promises that Delilah's daughter "turns bad, runs away from home, passes for white and breaks her mother's heart." The last two, definitely. But she doesn't "run", she's sent away for tutoring and elects not to return. She becomes a librarian and marries a white man who is a mining engineer, hardly anyone's definition of "turning bad", now or in 1933.

I guess the title of the book refers to Bea's life (although with the minimal returns Delilah got for her work, it could also refer to hers). Although Bea has an acquaintance who is both a successful businesswoman and attractive, Bea does not keep herself up. She has no true friends and does not attend social functions. When she does finally fall in love, it takes her weeks to make her awkward pass at the man in question, who rebuffs her. But at the same time, it's hard to see what choice Bea had. As a teenager, she'd always intended to marry and have children as social norms dictated. The alternative was thrust upon her by circumstance, and as the book noted repeatedly, success has its own momentum. Once she got started, she couldn't really stop. But you're not encouraged to admire Bea's hard work, or her ingenuity. You're supposed to feel sorry for this wealthy, successful woman, because she does not have a husband.

I would never go so far as to say I regret reading a book, but I wouldn't really recommend this one. It probably filmed very well (and I suspect they made substantial changes which made the story better). As it is, the book is very slow-moving, with the tale of Bea not really cranking up until around page 70 or so (in a 280-page book). It's also not terribly well-written. I suspect it was sort of the Valley of the Dolls of its day, and it hasn't aged terribly well. I like the idea behind the project, of reissuing long-out-of-print books that classic films were based on. But in this case, this rare case, the movie is probably better.