Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Every couple of years, I find myself in the mood once more to read the Harry Potter series. The story never gets old; it’s earned itself a special place in my heart.

harry_potter_and_the_sorcerers_stoneI think people are still drawn to these books because they feel like home. When thousands of people gather to read a story, it creates a sense of belonging which doesn’t fade when we finish the series. I think that’s the reason why Harry Potter will never die.

These books lack the elaborate description to which I am normally drawn, but that is not a weakness. We must take into account factors such as the age of the targeted audience. It surprises me a little that I enjoyed it, being a person who prefers old books with long paragraphs, but I then realize there’s more to a good story than flowery writing. J.K. Rowling is a master at writing action that keeps us turning the page, and I appreciate that, by not over-describing, she gave us room to imagine.

As for the story, I don’t think much description is necessary, however here is a loose overview:

Ten-year-old Harry Potter lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle and cousin, the Dursleys. This family take pride in being perfectly normal and respectable, unlike Harry, who has nothing in common with them at all. He is not normal; strange things happen when he feels threatened or upset. For example, one time Harry jumped onto the roof of his school, when all he’d wanted was to dive behind a trash can.

The worst of his mishaps comes to pass on his cousin Dudley’s birthday. During a trip to the zoo, Harry Potter finds he can talk to snakes. Then, when his cousin Dudley pushes him, Harry–in a flash of anger–causes the glass case to vanish, setting the python free. Though unable to explain how he did this, Harry is punished for it, locked in his cupboard under the stairs for days.

Just when he is convinced that he will never have any friends, a letter arrives in the mail for him. Uncle Vernon does not let him read it, though apparently he knows who it’s from, because it sends him into a panic. It doesn’t end there: soon dozens of letters begin to arrive, identical to the first. Then hundreds come pouring through the chimney and all the crevices along the windows. These letters can find Harry wherever he happens to be, whether under the stairs or at a hotel.

Driven mad by paranoia, Uncle Vernon moves his family to a desolate island. At last he is certain no one will be able to find them, but he is wrong. While on the island, the clock strikes midnight on Harry’s eleventh birthday–which, of course, the Dursleys haven’t celebrated–but he is about to receive the ultimate gift, that which loyal readers long to receive, even after we’ve grown old.

On his eleventh birthday, Harry Potter meets Hagrid, the gentle giant, who breaks into that island shack and hands him a letter like those Uncle Vernon had been hiding. In the letter, Harry Potter discovers that he is a wizard, a famous one at that. Most of all, he discovers that he has a home away from these unkind people, a place where he will belong.

Though we readers will never receive our letters from Hogwarts, dedicated fans will always feel like witches and wizards. This is the belonging: we might have nothing else in common, but our love for Harry’s story will bring us together for a very long time, perhaps for life.

Have you read the Harry Potter books? What House were you Sorted in? I am a Ravenclaw!

The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola


The Belly of Paris is a unique, fast-paced novel about justice, revolution, and hunger. It is the third book in a 20-part series titled Les Rougon-Macqyart. The series examines two branches of a family: the respectable (legitimate) side, and the disreputable (illegitimate.)

The third installment follows Florent Quenu, a French convict who escaped exile in French Guiana after six years of imprisonment due to a false accusation. The novel opens with a scene after his return to Paris; in the scene, his unconscious body is found on a road by a merchant on her way to a marketplace called Les Halles.

61bziDAYLCL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_At once we feel pity for this man who is broken and lost in the world. He spends a great deal of time reminiscing on his horrific escape and the journey back home. Only when he acquires a job and independence does he find his personality, and in it we see how anger has blackened his heart. He wants to revolt against the government.

Quoting a paragraph from the novel, Florent is convinced that “it was his calling to avenge his thinness against this city that had grown fat while those who defended justice starved in exile, he was a self-appointed avenger, and he dreamed of rising up, right in Les Halles, and crushing this regime of drunks and gluttons.”

To understand Florent’s political motives, it is necessary to know about the author. Emile Zola was a major figure in the political liberalization of France. His views led him to become a controversial man, especially after the publication of his political article, J’acusse. The article called for exoneration of the falsely accused army officer Alfred Dreyfus. Following the backlash, Zola was persecuted for libel; he was forced to escape to England to avoid imprisonment.

The oddest thing about The Belly of Paris is its description. Zola can make the gloomiest scenes comical with his descriptions of food. Vegetables, cheese, beef–all are used to set the mood for good times and bad. What a character eats is a major element in describing their personalities–class and wealth are shown by whether they eat fresh sausage and cheese for dinner, or are forced to beg for leftovers.

The beautiful fruits were on display, delicately arranged with the roundness of their cheeks, half-hidden in the baskets like faces of beautiful children, partly concealed by leaves. The peaches were especially beautiful, peaches from Montreuil with clear, soft skin like northern girls’ and yellow sunburned peaches from the Midi, tanned like Proven├žal women. The apricots lying in moss had the amber glow of sunset shining on dark-haired girls.

Zola wanted to write a novel where the city of Paris herself was a character; in this book, he did a fantastic job. With poignant characters and backstories, he plays with readers’ emotions, blurring the line between right and wrong. One day I hope to read all twenty books and see the character of Paris as seen by one of the boldest authors of his time.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust


kruse_swanns_wayOccasionally we find books so beautifully written that it seems the style, not the plot, keeps us turning pages.

Though translated from its original French, Swann’s Way did not lose its beauty in the process: every sentence reads like a verse from an old, nostalgic poem. As an example:

Meanwhile the scenery of his dream-stage scattered in dust, he opened his eyes, heard for the last time the boom of a wave in the sea, grown very distant. He touched his cheek. It was dry. And yet he could feel the sting of the cold spray, and the taste of salt on his lips.

That’s not to say the plot was dull–I only mean that I was entranced by the scenes, described in such a way that they drifted before me like dreams. Of the plot, I can say it’s unique in its depth, two points of view cleverly blended.

The two points of view seem as though they shouldn’t have anything in common. In Swann’s Way, the first scenes focus on young Marcel, loosely based on the author himself. This fact adds another layer of mystery. We want to get to know the author, and we wonder what traits he shared with his characters.

Marcel, the character, opens the novel with flashbacks to powerful moments in his childhood. It’s a sad, anxiety-ridden childhood; his fears plague him to a point where he cannot sleep if his mother doesn’t go upstairs to give him a kiss good-night. These kisses become ritual, seldom broken except for when the wealthy Charles Swann comes to visit.

Swann is the second main character. He is a wealthy stockbroker, friends with many important figures in Parisian society, and also controversial because of his marriage to a woman named Odette. Their courtship is a mark on his name forever, a favorite topic of Marcel’s grandparents to discuss when he is not around. His passages in the novel follow that tumultuous time.

We see his admiration for Odette become an obsession, then morph into anguish when she doesn’t reciprocate his love. When Odette distances herself from Swann, he begins to hate her as much as he wants her. Though he once thought her beautiful, he now loathes even her appearance. He fantasizes of a life without her, yet sends friends to stalk her and report her daily activities.

This jealousy is a trap for him as well as for Odette. This is where the story ripples like a reflection on water: as a reader, I didn’t like Charles Swann, but couldn’t bring myself to hate him. I knew he would never be happy, and I read many scenes with a grimace.

Swann and Odette eventually marry and have a daughter named Gilberte. Young Marcel falls for Gilberte in a manner similar to Swann’s obsession with Odette; it is here that their two stories become linked in an intriguing parallel.

Proust wrote this book in a way that he managed to manipulate time, much in the way painters mix color blends that tell stories; if we allow ourselves to soak in the sentences, we feel each emotion until the end.

This book may not be for everyone, because it is a rather heavy read, and a long one. It requires great patience–I found that speed-reading would not do, and forced myself to slow down so I could taste each word. If we miss one phrase, the enchantment does not grip us.

It is ideal for readers who like heavier stories, and those who soak in poetic writing. Swann’s Way will leave marks with the characters’ strong conflicts; there are certain scenes in which my heart will lurk forever.

I know I will read this book again one day.

If you would like to read Swann’s Way, it’s available for download here at Gutenberg! Have you already read the book? What are your thoughts on it?