Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sound the Keening Bell

...for Harry Potter, of course. The release of Book Seven, alternately known as Deathly Hallows in English and Relics of Death or even more morbid options in other languages, is probably the biggest book news of the year, maybe of the decade. It marks the end of one of the most successful literary enterprises, ever, probably next to Gutenburg's rendition of the Bible. And I'm really, really apprehensive about how this book is going to turn out.

First, a little background of my experiences and interactions with the Harry Potter series. Like almost every semi-literate twelve-year-old, I picked up the first book when it came out, and liked it. I kept reading the books, faithfully, from the second to the fifth. I considered them to be truly good books, and they held my interest over half a decade. My peer group and I, of course, are exactly the right age to enjoy the entire range of the series, from its innocuous childlike inception (when we were in middle school) to its dark and somewhat depressing antepenult (when we were nearing the end of high school and ready to handle such heavy matters).

Enter Patrick Norton, one of my five most respected high school teachers, who taught my AP Lit class. One of the obvious foundations for an advanced treatment of English is its classic literature, and to understand that you have to first define what a classic is. Norton used the counterexample of Harry Potter to define what a non-classic is. To be a classic, among other criteria, a book must have a point beyond mere storytelling, it must be unique or at least creative and lucid in making that point, and it must show us rather than tell us why that point is important. Harry Potter does none of these things, according to this instruction.

Why use Harry Potter as this counterexample? First, because of the contemporary relevance of the series. For an intelligent bunch of teenagers in the mid-2000s, there was a good chance that their recent literary development at least had a flavor of Harry Potter in it, if not outright dominated by it. Second, because of its overwhelming popularity and fanbase. People are fanatics about these books. Sure, John Grisham, Robin Cook, and Dan Brown, just to name a few, have their loyal readerships. But nobody's proclaiming The Firm, Toxin, or even for all its attached controversy and resultant staggering popularity, The DaVinci Code a classic. And yet, Harry Potter apologists are more than willing to do so for their books.

So, according to Norton at least, Harry Potter is not a classic... not that there's anything wrong with that. The immediate follow-up to the "what is a classic" discussion was the "what makes a book good" discussion. Just because a book isn't a classic doesn't mean one can't find it entertaining, exciting, or even thought-provoking. And just because a book is a classic doesn't mean one has to agree with or enjoy it.

At the time, though, I wasn't so ready to accept Norton's assertion. After all, these books did have characters that were at once deep and relatable, they had literary devices peppered throughout, and they had a staying power that far outmatched most popular fiction. Didn't that qualify as a classic? Once I finished that class, I read the sixth book in the series. This one was even darker than the previous, bordering on horrific (or at least occult) in some places, and it introduced a completely new plane of moral ambiguity into the series. That much further emboldened my intellectual position that, if Harry Potter wasn't a classic, it at least had admirable classic-like qualities.

So, the more Harry Potter I read, the more convinced I was that the series shouldn't be immediately dismissed as non-classic. And now, the more I read about what book 7 is going to be like, the more convinced I am that JK Rowling is sabotaging her own position. The biggest fear I have about this book is that it's going to attempt to explain too many things, to tie together too many loose ends. Loose ends are okay. In the real world, things don't come together nicely. Granted, a world with wizards and flying brooms and evil necromancers isn't real, but once you accept the premise of those things existing, you can at least shoot for verisimilitude. Explaining every last unknown destroys that.

To paraphrase JRR Tolkien, the undisputed founder of the modern fantasy genre and an author to whom JK Rowling owes virtually the entirety of her inspirational credit to, "in a fantasy setting, there are some mysteries that don't need to be explained." Tolkien cited Tom Bombadil, the yellow-booted primordial guardian of nature, as one of those mysteries. He's been there as long as Iluvatar (God) himself. He played into the main storyline of the series, but wasn't central to it. He comes and goes as only a being that ancient and powerful can please. None of this is addressed in the books, and Tolkien correctly asserts that it does not need to be. That's because Tolkien was building a setting in which the reader was supposed to believe that many things were happening: the story of the One Ring, and many other complex lives, tales, and events that didn't necessarily interconnect. That's the mark of good world-building.

Rowling had the potential to do the same thing. Her world is cleverly crafted, and from the start of the first book, we're awash in believability of setting. With her promises to make things all come together at the end, though, it's clear that she's crafting a story, not a setting. Take her mention of bringing Dolores Umbridge back. In the real world, a character like Umbridge would come and go, making her indelible mark on the environment, and then departing when the time was right. If Rowling brings her back, it's only for fan satisfaction and the exploitation of an inside joke.

Finally, there's the Snape dilemma Rowling has worked herself into. If Snape turns out to be a Good Guy, then there's an inconsistency with him having been so much of a jerk to everyone of the other Good Guys. There hasn't been any narrative justification for him to have switched to the Good Guys; nothing in it for him. If he turns out to be a Bad Guy, then Dumbledore, the smartest, wisest, and most amazing Good Guy ever, was wholly wrong for decades. There hasn't been any narrative justification for Dumbledore to even be capable of making a mistake that big. My own feelings on Snape are well known; it only makes sense for him to be out for himself and playing both sides. And it makes the world more believable. If Rowling neglects this opportunity to make Snape neutral, she's put the nail in her own "Harry Potter is nothing but popular fiction" coffin.

Completely unrelated to Harry Potter, a loyal reader may have noticed that I never posted a review of 300. That's because I didn't have a lot to say about it. The first time I heard of this movie was at a friend's apartment, when I was shown the trailer for what was proclaimed to be "the most amazing movie, ever." A lot of people still held that view after they saw the movie. I was not one of them. I was skeptical of the movie from the first time I saw the trailer, and I still held that view after I saw the movie. But posting a somewhat negative review of 300 on the "This! Is! Sparta!" obsessed Internet would be akin to posting a critique of the Church's position on birth control somewhere in Vatican City. It just wouldn't have any impact.

Someone with a larger reader contingent than I do, though, may get noticed. Take, for instance, someone who had been noticed by Digg. Someone like these guys, who feel exactly the same way about 300 that I do. Give their review a read.

Currently listening: "Clark Gable," the Postal Service

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bong Hits and Americanism

No, I'm not into illegal drugs. And apparently, even if I were, I couldn't advertise it on a school campus. If you haven't heard about the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, now would be a good time to familiarize yourself with it. Here, the Supreme Court limited rights on student free speech, or so it would seem. If you read the deliberately sensationalist headlines on any news reporting service (CNN included) it would seem that it was a new development that schools were allowed to censor their students.

If that were the case, then why hasn't this become a Constitutional issue already? It has never been allowed, for instance, for a student to wear a shirt with a pot leaf on it. This is a clear limitation on that student's free speech, though, so is that a Constitutional issue? A friend of mine reported Southern good old boys being very disappointed indeed when shirts bearing "Old Dixie" on the front and a picture of black people working in a cotton field on the back were banned. A certain Georgia Tech fraternity may also have been dismayed at this news, but it was of course widely supported at the school. Nevertheless, isn't this a limitation on free speech, too?

Looking at other Constitutionally guaranteed rights, students can't bring guns to school. Neither, for that matter, can teachers, staff, parents, or visitors. But that's a limitation on everyone's second amendment rights to keep and bear arms, right? A minor cannot sue anyone for a perceived injustice against him, and neither can a second party bring a suit against a minor. Is this a limitation of a student's eighth amendment rights? Finally, the ninth and tenth amendments reserve non-enumerated rights to the people. But there are all sorts of laws telling minors what they can and cannot do--driving a car, getting married, and entering contracts, to name a few. That should be an abridgment of a student's Constitutional rights too.

In conclusion, of course a government has an ability to limit the rights of its minors. Whether that's right or not is another issue, and one that I'm not well enough versed in Constitutional law to comment on. But the fact is that it exists, for better or for worse.

Now for the kink.

If you dig a little deeper into this case, the incident took place outside of the school. Granted, the students were participating in a school function at the time, and that's what actually makes the case interesting. To me, this was less a case of how a student's rights can be limited, and more a case of how far a school's jurisdiction extends, and under what circumstances. Of course, the Justices thought it was about drugs, and we'll have to assume they know more about the law than I do.

Said Chief Justice Roberts: "[the principle] failing to act would send a powerful message to the students..." About what? It's not like this kid had a bong to offer hits from in the first place. Said Justice Stevens, in dissent: "[this case establishes] a special First Amendment rule permitting the censorship of any student speech that mentions drugs..." And here, I disagree too, because I still maintain this case is not about drugs.

Regardless of which side you back, the one person who was clearly wrong in all of this was the student. He contends, ""I find [the sign] absurdly funny," which it's simply not.

One topic that's always interesting to think about is the degree to which politics are acceptable in music. On one hand, I've always been adamantly "keep your mouth shut and sing" or act, direct, or otherwise entertain. On the other hand, politically-driven music can be remarkably good. One of the best examples of contemporary politically-motivated music is, of course, American Idiot by Green Day. I like American Idiot for the most part. "She's a Rebel" is probably among my top twenty favorite songs, and of course "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" was near-ubiquitous my senior year of high school, so it has a sort of pleasant nostalgia associated with it.

That said, it's way too political for me. Regardless of how you interpret its message and if you agree with it or not, this album produced the unfortunate contradiction between "this is music I like" and "this was produced by means I disagree with." It's recently come to my attention that the lead singer of the Killers, another band I really like, had something to say about American Idiot too. According to Brandon Flowers, the album displays "calculated Anti-Americanism." He further goes on to assert that "[English and German] kids aren't taking [the message] the same way that [Billie Joe Armstrong] meant it. And he knew it." Well done, Mr. Flowers.

I contend that neither Sam's Town nor American Idiot is anywhere near as representative of slices of American life, of joy, of change, and of heartbreak as Sufjan Stevens' Illinoise is. But that's just my indie-pop sensibility.

One more note on indie-pop: Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer isn't as bad as it was as I first listened to it. I think the reason I hated it so much for so long is due to a recency effect. Even after a second chance (one that redeemed most of the album), "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" is truly a horrible song. And the track titles are too pretentious. And there's too much unwarranted use of gapless playback. And a lot of the harmonies are so thick that they become dissonant. But other than that, it's not a bad album.

Currently listening: "Suffer for Fashion," Of Montreal

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How to Change a Life

I'm not going to assert that Barcelona was disappointing. On the contrary, it was a lot of fun, a thoroughly enjoyable trip. Evidently it was supposed to be a "life-changing" experience, though, and that it just wasn't. Maybe if you're the type that organizes weekend trips around bars and getting drunk, Barcelona is the place to be. I don't necessarily subscribe to that method of travel... oh well. Then again, the guide to Bruges told me not to spend any money on chocolate (and spend it on beer instead) and that I didn't care about the Michaelangelo sculpture in the cathedral. So perhaps I just don't fit into the "backpack across Europe" stereotype either.

So far, Rome has been the closest thing to "life-changing" that I've seen. It was a Bad Idea to attempt to see all of it in a day, that's for sure. How do you do Rome in a day? Simple: skip the Fountain of Trevi, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus and Old Appian Way, the Capitoline Museums, and the Vatican Museum. Clearly, that's not idea. So, in the spirit of the multitude of travel guides that I've relied on thus far, here's my advice on seeing Rome.

Before you arrive, you'll need to consider where to stay. There are three things you want in a hotel: location, quality, and value. Pick any two. You will not be able to find a cheap and decent hotel in the city center. For that matter, you will probably not be able to find a cheap hotel at all, regardless of quality, in the city center.

Don't try to see the Eternal City in anything less than three and a half days. Arrive one day in the afternoon or evening, and don't rush out to any of the premiere destinations that day. Instead, get some coffee or gelato, wander by the Fountain of Trevi, or do anything else that doesn't demand a huge investment of sightseeing effort.

The next day, wake up early enough to get in line for the Colosseum the second it opens. The line for the Colosseum is enormously long, though it moves faster than you might think. Gawk at the men who have the best jobs in all of Rome: the costumed gladiators who point their swords in the right direction to get in line. Once you're inside, have fun archaeologing it up. The ticket costs eleven Euros, and don't bother trying to get a student discount unless you're a student who lives in an EU country. That doesn't include taking classes in an EU college if you're not a citizen. If the eleven Euros doesn't seem quite worth it once you've gotten there, I sort of agree. For pure ruin potential, Pompeii is much better and a Euro cheaper. Luckily, that ticket also allows you admission up the Palatine Hill and the gardens and ruins there. You'll see the Roman Forum below you; don't be tempted to see that today. Spend a little quality time on the Palatine: after you've walked around the Colosseum and up the Palatine, the gardens are an excellent place to relax. Eat. Now go a bit to the south, and see even more of the ancient landmarks, like the Circus Maximus and the Old Appian Way.

Next day, devote the entire thing to the heart of the ancient city. Start with the Roman Forum, and see the temples, the Arch of Septimus, the New Senate House, and the original SPQR arch. If you can, try and stumble upon a guided tour. I managed to find one that was at once free and extremely informative.

I'm a bit of a Roman history/culture geek, and even I learned some things about how ancient Rome worked. For instance, the reason the Christians were persecuted in Rome wasn't because of their belief in Jesus. On the contrary, the Romans were the most religiously tolerant empire until the Mongols, twelve centuries later. The persecution only came when they refused to bow before the image of the God-Emperor Julius Caesar. The tour guide likened this to JFK in America: an extremely popular leader who was killed. What if his successor, Lyndon Johnson, built a temple to JFK in the National Mall near the Capitol building and made the entire country pay their respects to him as a god?

See the rest of the Forum. Eat. Now walk up the next hill, the Capitoline, and spend the rest of the day in the museums there. You can see ancient artwork and statue dating back from Etruscan times.

Last day, see the Vatican. If you're of a religious (ie, Catholic) bent, go to a Mass here; you'll need a special pass that you can only get a few days beforehand. I don't know how to go about that. The Basilica itself is too touristy, with a line almost as long as the Colosseum to get in and half of it roped off at any give point. But it's still impressive. Be sure to see the Pieta. Go see the treasury, which showcases the immense power and wealth of the early church, located in the basilica itself. Gawk at crystal monstrances and cloth of gold vestments. Afterwards, climb the steps or take the elevator to the dome. Finally, see the grotto, with tombs of most popes since 1300. Eat. Devote the rest of the day to the Vatican Museum, which is supposed to be really impressive. Just be sure to make sure it's open. Specifically, don't go on Sunday, unless it's the last Sunday of the month. Get there before about 2 pm; otherwise you might not be let in.

Now have some more coffee or gelato, and you're done!

Currently listening: "Oh Comely," Neutral Milk Hotel

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


A few weeks ago, in the Gwinnett section of the AJC, a graduating senior from UGA offered a column of her advice to graduating high school seniors. This proved two things: 1) the high school-college transition is about the same level of "complete paradigm shift" no matter where you're leaving from or going to, and 2) people from UGA actually can do at least a few things well. I have my own spin on this, in part inspired by the recent high school graduation of many of my friends, and in part by things I miss from back in the States.

To begin, enjoy your high school graduation. Yeah, I know that's a couple weeks late (but hopefully not too many dollars short)--maybe make some internal conversions to past tense or something. Two years ago at this time of year, I started to run out of sheet cake from my own graduation... hopefully you still have some left. This is almost certainly the biggest event of your life to this point. Aside from your birth (which I'll wager you don't remember too well) and perhaps a handful of religiously significant occasions, this is the one time where so much attention has been focused on you. High party concentration, lots of generous relatives, and the chance to see all those people one last time is sure to be memorable.

Advice for graduating seniors regarding the summer:

First and foremost, appreciate your hometown. You know that "barely a step above ghetto" movie theater downtown? The one where at any given time for the past five years, you had a decent shot of knowing at least somebody working there; the same one where sneaking into movies wasn't even worth the challenge because it was so easy? As strange as it sounds, you're going to miss it. Because, wait, that was also the place where you had your first real date. The place where your friend famously smuggled in a pound bag of ginger snaps and a quart of milk. Heck, for its sort of crapped out condition now, you remember when it was built when you were just a kid.

You also, of course, know that Steak and Shake right next door to it; the only place in miles (besides any one of seven Waffle Houses) that you can get any food after your 9:30 movie finishes; the one where you actually started to get to know the waitress because it seemed there were only ever two people working there at midnight. Remember that Steak and Shake well.

Maybe you've taken an interest in local politics, maybe not. Maybe you use your county parks, and maybe you don't. Maybe you care about local events, new businesses, fairs, and hometown doings, and maybe you couldn't care less. Chances are, though, your little corner of the world means at least something to you, and you might be surprised at how much you miss it in the fall.

Appreciate your car, too. As a graduating high school senior, there's a good chance that you at least have access to a car. By "have access to" I don't necessarily mean your name is on the title. You may or may not be the primary driver. But to get to any given place at any given time, there's at least a decent chance you can procure some manner of motor vehicle. That's not necessarily going to be the case in college. On some campuses, parking is so abundant, affordable, and convenient that there's practically no reason not to bring your car. At others--my own Georgia Institute of Technology among them--it's damn expensive to get a space that might be a half mile walk from your dorm room anyway.

Therefore, the corollary to "appreciate your car" becomes "get used to walking." Things are surprisingly far away when you start having to hoof it over there on your own. Oh, sure, you can rely on your college's bus/shuttle/trolley/generalized people mover system, but it turns out that one Immutable Law of College is your college's public transportation is never effective. Maybe it's inefficient, maybe it doesn't go the places you need it to, maybe it's overcrowded, maybe it's on the unsanitary side. Probably, it's some combination of the above to which any given college student can add his own bdelygmia.

This summer, watch what you eat. Dietarily, I recommend eating less popcorn and fewer Pop-Tarts, cutting back on macaroni and cheese by at least half, and avoiding ramen entirely. No, this blog hasn't turned into Health Food Lovers Anonymous. But you will eat more of those foods in college than you ever thought possible. "Wait, Easy Mac and ramen, that's a total college kid stereotype!" Well, yes, it is. It also happens to be entirely true. The girl who wrote the article in the AJC suggests "Eat your mom's cooking. You will miss it. A lot." That's excellent advice too.

While you're busy eating your mom's cooking, do as little as possible this summer. Okay, I don't actually mean that. A better phrasing might be "do as little as possible that you don't want to do." Specifically, don't be in any sort of hurry to get a job. If you genuinely like working, sure, keep your job. If financially you need it to support your Out of State habit, that's acceptable. But between summer internships, summer classes, study abroad programs, and finding yourself by backpacking from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, you're going to be awfully busy during your college summers. After you graduate from college, let's face it, there's not going to be any summer discretionary time anyway.

Finally, have fun preparing for college. Take advantage of any parental offers to buy anything for you, whether it be dorm furnishings, food, clothing, books, or whatever. As that AJC article pointed out, this is going to be the last time until your wedding that your parents are going to be so willing to spend money on you. And that's probably a long way away.

Now a few things not be to be so nostalgic about:

Forget high school sports. Maybe not entirely--it can be a lot of fun to go back and see a football game. If you went to a Shiloh-style high school, you can relive the good old days of having about a 3 in 4 chance of watching your team lose. You're probably thinking "but I like high school football! I always had fun there." Probably. Once you've been to a college football game, though, this will make perfect sense. From the scent of frat-boy flasks being broken out in the first quarter to their drunken dates asking you what inning it is; from screaming your lungs out with friends to "instant social program" with the residents; from devastating defeats to thrilling last-minute comebacks, there are reasons why the football game is the premier college entertainment. And aside from trying to predict whether your team will lose by four or five touchdowns, high school football doesn't hold a candle to it.

Bid a good riddance to high school drama. (This isn't about theatrical productions, but those are probably better in college than in high school too.) Oh, that's not to say that drama doesn't exist in college--quite the contrary. It's just better drama. Often, high school drama isn't all that far removed from "Do you like me? Check yes or no." College drama, on the other hand, isn't too far removed from that guy you've known since he was 13 getting married. Of all the things to leave behind from high school, being that 15 year old emo kid who spends the night with friends talking about which girls you love and how you;re never going to get any of them... that's a good one to forget.

In the fall, look forward to a sort of companion piece to this one, which will be a discussion of what to do once you're actually in college. For now, enjoy the summer... you'll miss them.

Currently listening: "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine," the Killers

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Things Liked and Disliked, In Brief

Europe is a lot of fun, no doubt about it. But if there were an official Bureau of Complaints Against Europe (such a thing probably exists in Brussels), I would have the following to register:

Graffiti. Seriously, people. Spraypainting "socialisme" on a fence on the outskirts of Barcelona is not a cutting-edge political statement. If you've never been to Europe, think of the intersection of Boulevard and Memorial Drive and multiply the amount of graffiti you anticipate by about ten. I don't know if it's more graffitiers, fewer resources dedicated to getting rid of it, or just an overabundance of spray paint available. It's a big problem, whatever is causing it. It makes otherwise beautiful and historic cities look rundown.

And on the other side, for the Bureau of Good Things about Europe:

Old-fashioned granny-run hotels. It's nothing short of amazing when you can hand a little old lady a 50 Euro bill and get a medieval looking key to a three bed room in return, no questions asked. No Spanish? Doesn't matter. As long as a private shower and a fancy bar of soap to take home aren't your top priorities, you're good to go.

Look again at Photobucket, this time updated with Spain picutres.

Currently listening: "Sea Songs," Vaughan Williams