Wednesday, June 25, 2003

I know how he feels 

Thanks to Gabe and Tycho for summing up my feelings for the new Harry Potter book.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 

Yes, I have read it, and yes, it is good. Here's a quick review, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. Of course, if you the kind of person avoiding spoilers to the book, then you're probably reading your own copy now, and unconcerned with what reviewers have to say.

A quick recap of Book 4: The two greatest schools of magic from continental Europe visited Hogwarts for the school year, and champions from each school competed in the Triwizard Tournament, a year-long contest of magic and wits. The champion from Hogwarts was Cedric Diggory, but through the machinations of Defense Against the Dark Arts Professor Moody, who turned out not to be Moody but an imposter, Harry Potter was also chosen to compete in the Tournament. In the final contest of the Tournament, Harry and Cedric were whisked away by Lord Voldemort at their moment of shared triumph, Cedric was killed, and Voldemort returned to life. Harry learned the identities of several Death Eaters, loyal followers of Voldemort, and then was whisked back to the Tournament, carrying the body of Cedric. He explained to Headmaster Dumbledore that Voldemort had returned, but when Dumbledore tried to explain this to Cornelius Fudge, Minister of Magic and political leader of wizards and witches in England, Fudge obstinately refused to believe him.

Book 5 begins the same way the previous four books began: Harry is miserable on Privet Drive. He's been back a month, and has gotten nothing but very brief, and very cryptic, letters from his friends. Dudley has taken to being more bullying than ever, though mostly to other people. And Harry, trying to keep tabs on Voldemort should he begin wreaking havoc, has been keeping an eye on the news, an activity which the Dursleys are only too happy to block as often as possible. Things come to a head when Harry and Dudley are attacked by magical beings, Dudley becomes stricken, and the Dursleys refuse to believe that Harry was not responsible.

Without giving away too much, this attack forced Harry to do magic, which all students are expressly forbidden to do. Though he was defending his life and that of his cousin, Harry is threatened with a criminal inquiry and even worse, possible expulsion from Hogwarts. Would you be surprised to learn that Harry is not expelled from Hogwarts?

Once Harry makes it back to Hogwarts, things are hardly better. Snape still hates him. The Dailey Prophet has been insinuating in it's pages that Harry is off his rocker to believe that Voldemort had returned, and certain groups of students find it easier and more convenient to believe the Prophet than to believe Harry. And Defense Against The Dark Art has a new teacher: Professor Umbridge, a high-level official from the Ministry of Magic, assigned by the Ministry to keep an eye on Dumbledore, Harry, and anybody else who claims that Voldemort has returned. Professor Umbridge's refusal to teach her charges any practical information about defending against the dark arts, as well as her very unsubtle power grabs, makes her quite unpopular with teachers and students alike.

But things aren't all bad. Pleasant surprises are in store for Hermione, and especially for Ron, who comes several steps closer to fulfilling the dreams displayed on the Mirror of Erised. Ron's brother Fred and George expand their joke business exponentially, to the consternation of many, and the enjoyment of readers. Harry makes several new friends, including Luna Lovegood, a fourth-year student who's a bit, well, strange. And he gets a chance to explore his feelings for Cho Chang, a Ravenclaw Quiddich player and the late Cedric Diggory's former girlfriend. Also, Harry, Ron, and Hermione find themselves at the center of a group of students intent on learning practical defense against dark arts, despite their professor's feelings otherwise.

But Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the Empire Strikes Back of the series: Our heroes suffer a series of strategic withdrawals, and by the end have lost somebody quite dear. This is the book that will make Harry's eventual triumph even sweeter. Harry starts to be affected by his hormones in ways beyond his attraction to Cho: Harry gets very angry. A lot. Harry spends a good deal of the book angry, and shouting at those close to him. His anger is often quite understandable. He feels that he is not being told things he should rightly be told. And he feels hurt by Dumbledore, who seems to be ignoring Harry as much as possible.

Book 5 is the darkest book in the series, darker even than Book 4, but it is a tribute to Rowling's talent as a writer that the book stays fun and easily readable. She is still as inventive as ever when describing various maladies, creatures, and spells of the magical world. Several scenes had me laughing out loud, such as when Umbridge starts observing Professor McGonagall's class, and the Transfiguration instructor can barely hide her resentment of the intrusion. Like Book 4, Book 5 could probably be half as long as it is if the book were pared down to just it's main plot. But Rowling is intent of filling her book with endless detail, and so much the better for us. Hermione continues her crusade to free the house-elves. We get more details about the family of Sirius Black, Harry's godfather. Hargrid has a new, mysterious, and typically dangerous project. Harry has a date for Valentine's Day. A secret society has reformed, with Harry as their focus. Harry learns that Snape's dislike of his father is perhaps not as unfounded as he had once believed. Mr. Weasley is attacked. The school gets a new Divination teacher. Harry learns, to his chagrin, exactly what pulls the carriages from Hogsmead to Hogwarts. And Harry and company find another secret room in Hogwarts, one perfectly suited for what they need.

As in previous books, innocuous details from early on, and from earlier books, are quite important by the end of the story. Backstory is woven into the narrative so deftly that you barely recognize it for what it is. New characters introduced to the story fit right in with those established. New character traits in existing characters fit in with the story, and help explain earlier actions. It is, in short, everything you expect in a Harry Potter book. That there are times where you just want to reach in the book, grab Harry and give him a good shake, and shout "Stop being such a teenager," are -- I feel -- a tribute to Rowling's skill as an author. If you liked the previous books, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. And if you have never read the previous books, there is enough backstory woven into the book that you'll be able to follow the plot, but you will miss much of the magic of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Affirmative Action and the Supreme Court  

Bravo to the Supreme Court for ruling that universities can consider race in admissions decisions. The ruling was split over two different admissions policies:

  • The Court upheld that the Universty of Michigan's Law School could use race as a factor in choosing from among applicants, so as to maintain a "critical mass" of minority students, historicall between 10 and 17 percent.

  • The Court struck down the University of Michigan's undergratuate admissions policy, which awarded "points" to applicants based on many factors, among them race.

  • The Court said in its decision that using race as a factor in admissions was acceptable, but that universities could not be rigid about it. The decision upholds the University's right to determine the nature of their student body. Grades and test scores are not the only measure of a student's education potential, and universities can use other determinates in making their admissions.

    As a person who scored well in high school on my ACT and SAT exams, I can testify that standardized tests were the least-important measure of my learning abilities and my future contribution to my university. Universities have long chosen applicants based on many criteria: Grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and sports participation, volunteer service, and many others. If a college or university chooses to consider an applicant's racial or socio-econonomic group in admissions in order to ensure a diverse student body, more power to them. As a white, middle-class male, my point of view is well represented within society at large. Overall, I don't believe that I will be injured by a University's, or even an employer's desire to increase diversity.
    This is a first, test post

    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?