July 28, 2011

The reader's perspective

I have been sitting on this post for a while.

Rather, I have been sitting on this topic for a while, wondering how to go about writing about it, or even if I should write about it, or if I should write about it, whether it might be better placed in a journal or diary. After much waffling, here we go:

I read the book Sisterhood Everlasting, by Ann Brashares, a few weeks ago. I didn't count, but I probably started crying about six or seven times while reading it. After I'd finished, I felt really, really emptied. Devoid, desolate, bleak. It took me a few days before I really felt back to normal.*

Why this intense reaction? Well... It's because of my baggage. What I bring to the table, whenever I sit down and read a book. Without getting extremely personal, I will say that I have experience with some of the following: suicide, depression, bipolar disorder, family schisms, and dead mothers. Sisterhood Everlasting has all of the above (in various shades), and in my opinion, Sisterhood Everlasting got it wrong.

Would I say that the book treated those topics lightly? Not lightly, exactly. But I almost felt that the book made an attempt to lighten the subject matter by making the overarching message of the book one of light, and hope. Like a character who clearly suffers from bipolar disorder (albeit a milder case) can somehow turn herself around on the dot and decide to be better. (Not exactly true, my friends.) It's odd, the way I feel about the book. On one hand, I was perturbed by the fact that the rest of the Sisterhood books are so light (not blase, but definitely light), touching on serious material only carefully, and that this one was not. And on the other hand, I was saddened by the fact that this last book aimed to cover these problems, but (in my opinion) didn't treat them with the right amount of gravitas.

Anyway. As I was sitting around despondently after reading this book, it occurred to me that no one who does not have my personal experience will likely feel this way about Sisterhood Everlasting. Looking at it from an objective perspective (or as objective I can be), I would say that it's a good book. Others will agree. Others will likely not be bothered by the way Brashares treats these topics, because others have not experienced them firsthand. And that's fine. But it does mean that a lot of how "good" people think a book is actually has to do with the perspective of the reader -- not the objective quality of the book.

Whether we like a book or not depends on how good a book is, yes. But it also depends on whether we're hungry or impatient as we read the book, or whether we're grouchy or tired, or instead in a marvelous, "I love the world!" mood. Feeling marvelous? Well, then you might enjoy a few pages about how nice it would be to have a pet tiger. Feeling sleepy? Well, then you might wish the writer would go on and kill the damn tiger already. And if you have firsthand experience with a topic covered in a book, experience that differs drastically from the way it's presented, that inevitably changes how you evaluate the story.

I've definitely put down books before that I probably would have liked, if I hadn't been tired/annoyed/sick/hungry when I started reading them. Sometimes I recognize those moods, and I make a note to pick the book up again later. Sometimes I don't, and I just let them go.

So, my friends, here's the question: How much do you think your rating of a book depends on your particular perspective, on your background, your mood, your habits, and how they relate to the book? How much objectivity can people really have when they sit down to read? Clearly my personal example is a little extreme, but have you ever noticed smaller, subtler ways in which your reader's perspective shapes the way you feel about a book?

*There is a point to be made here about the book accomplishing its purpose if reading about particular subjects brought my personal feelings SO far out of their usual hiding places. But my distaste for the book was more in the way it was handled, not so much that the topics were covered at all in the first place.

July 22, 2011

Bloggy Redirect

Sorry to pull a bait and switch on you, dear readers. The blog post I'd intended to write for today ended up over at my other blog, Lost Book Girls. If you're interested to hear about how I feel about celebrities writing memoirs, please feel free to head over!

Otherwise, I will see you on Monday. There WILL be a blog post here, and it will be good.

July 8, 2011

Harry Potter Query: Slytherin

I promise, this is not going to turn into a Harry-Potter-themed blog. But between the rereading I'm doing and the, oh, I don't know, MOVIE that's coming out next week, there's more and more of this stuff floating around on the internet and you just can't avoid it. You just can't. Expect a full return to normal programming after next week.

Example: Today I woke up to find a video blog by the delightful Jackson Pearce addressing Harry Potter. In this blog, she told us what house she would likely be sorted into if she were to attend Hogwarts. The answer, my friends, is Slytherin.

This really got me thinking. Slytherin (at least the people who get sorted into Slytherin) is supposed to have some redeeming qualities, right? Room for people with potential for greatness and all that. So why is it that everyone in Slytherin is portrayed as simply awful? And likewise, why is it that everyone who ever went bad came out of Slytherin? (Okay, technically there's Peter Pettigrew to be accounted for, but that's just one person. Seriously.)

I really think that Rowling dropped the ball here. Yes, there are some Slytherins that do some good things (sort of -- example, Malfoy's mother lying to Voldemort), so I suppose there's a little redemption going on there. But the point is that no one in Slytherin is portrayed as nice to begin with. Couldn't Harry have had a friend from Slytherin? Would that have been too much to ask? Do they all have to be described, from the beginning, as a rather "nasty bunch"?

This sort of circles back round to some of the issues raised in my last blog post, about the Sorting Hat and the strict separation of houses. (See comments.) There certainly is a problem in Hogwarts when no one will really hang out with anyone who's from a different house. In fact, really the only time I saw students from different houses mingling seriously was when Harry founded Dumbledore's Army, at which point the whole of Hogwarts society was beginning to crumble under the strain of Umbridge's awfulness anyway. (But notice that there are no Slytherins in the D.A.)

Dear readers, am I missing something here? Are there "good" Slytherins? It seems like some of them get a little redemption, but is it too much to ask that one might have been good from the start?

July 4, 2011

Harry Potter Query: First Years

Warning: this post may not be thrilling to you if you are not interested in/curious about Harry Potter minutia.

I'm busy rereading Harry Potter, and moving rather slowly. I have no particular deadline in mind, but thought it would be a good time to get reacquainted with the books. It has been a while. I used to reread each book as the next came out, resulting in my reading the first Harry Potters many times more than I read the later ones. I anticipate a few "No way!" moments when I get down the line, but for now I'm meandering through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

It's an interesting read, especially considering how many things J. K. Rowling brought back in later books. I'm sure there have been interviews on this, but did she really plot out every book that carefully, in advance? It seems just a little insane -- certainly I'm nowhere near that as a writer.

Anyway, here's one question that just occurred to me as I was reading the bit about Harry and company being sorted into their respective Houses. (I'm hoping that another rabid fan out there may be able to answer/clarify this point...) The narrative states that when Harry and his Gryffindor crew hop up to the dormitory for the first time, there is a room with five beds in it, one for each of the boys. I assume that this means there were only five male Gryffindor first years that year: Harry, Ron, Seamus, Neville, and Dean.

Carrying this further (based on the number of brooms present at the first flying lesson: twenty, for the Gryffindor and Slytherin first years combined), there are a: exactly five female first years per House, and b: exactly ten first years total per House. This comes out (assuming a 100% retention rate) to seventy students per House, two hundred and eighty students in the entire school.

Was this obvious to everyone else? Was I just being silly when I was thinking that we only focused on a few Hogwarts students per year, and there were many more who simply weren't that important? (Because this means that each student is much more important than I previously gave them credit for...)

Anyway, that's not my actual question. My question is, then: If the five and ten student quotas are set, then doesn't that mean the Sorting Hat has two tasks? First, to sort the students into their appropriate Houses, and second, to fill the quota? And if the Sorting Hat must fill the quota, then what happens if there are more students appropriate for a certain House than there are spaces? One assumes that the Sorting Hat reads your true nature and places you appropriately, but if there is a quota on how many students are sorted into each House, can this be absolutely true? OR, does this mean that admissions letters are sent to the appropriate batch of students in the first place, and the Sorting Hat is just reaffirming what the professors (or admissions committee, or whatever) knew already about which students will end up in which House?

Of course, the free-wheeling, all-powerful nature of the Sorting Hat is touted from Sorcerer's Stone onward, so it doesn't make much sense that the Sorting Hat is just reaffirming something that's already known. But if the Sorting Hat is really free to choose (and if the students, like Harry, have some say about which is their House), then how can that be reconciled with the strict ten students per year quota that seems to be in place? (This assumption follows from the fact that both Gryffindor and Slytherin have exactly ten students in the first year, five male and five female.)

Anyone have any thoughts? Or am I just taking this way too far? (By the way, Happy Fourth of July and all that.)

July 1, 2011

Public service announcement (or, living with food allergies)

On Wednesday night I went out to eat at an Indian restaurant and ordered something benign. I can't remember the name of the dish, but it had potatoes and peas in a spicy curry. It smelled delicious...but I knew after only three small bites that there was something wrong. My throat had become scratchy, and swallowing was just on the edge of painful. I was having an allergic reaction.

Most people don't know this, but I have an allergy to tree nuts. (Not peanuts -- peanuts are legumes. Look it up.) The reason most people don't know this is that to me, it's never been that big of a problem. Some people have life-threatening allergies, and in comparison, mine felt like no big deal. I wasn't as careful as I could have been, but my reactions, when they occurred, weren't that serious: a scratchy throat, some drowsiness, a little trouble swallowing. Just take some Benadryl, go to sleep, and wake up better. (I can see those people who carry EpiPens everywhere rolling their eyes.)

Wednesday night was different. Not from the start -- from the start it felt the same as it always did. I excused myself from the table and made for the closest Walgreens to pick up some Benadryl and water.

The trouble started after that. I'd obtained my Benadryl, but the symptoms were not going away. Au contraire -- they were getting worse. Much worse. Over the next six hours my ears swelled, inhibiting my ability to hear. I was alternately feverish and chilled. I got hives all over my body, and my eyes swelled so much that I could barely open them. I had severe abdominal pain, and I threw up multiple times.

I almost went to the emergency room, but could not muster enough energy to get out of bed. Sleep would solve the problem, I reasoned, taking another dose of Benadryl. After all, the biggest worry during allergic reactions is that the throat will swell, cutting off the airway and a person's ability to breathe. That hadn't happened to me, so in all likelihood everything else would take care of itself. (Everything else, in other words, was only painful. Not life-threatening.)

It turned out that I was right, for the most part. Most of my symptoms diminished overnight, leaving me with puffy eyes and bone-deep exhaustion in the morning. I slept most of the day, and though I'm still not feeling well, I hope to get there by tomorrow. A happy ending: no emergency room visit involved.

I am lucky. There are many people in this world who have worse allergies, life-threatening ones. I should know -- my brother is one of them. Allergies like those mean carrying EpiPens, questioning the labels on everything, and interrogating cooks at restaurants. I've always felt like my allergies are just "no big deal" in comparison. And it's true, my allergies are not life-threatening. But after my experience over the last day, I've learned that I cannot treat them like "no big deal" any more.

My allergies are not simply an inconvenience, even though that's how I've been treating them. They are painful and frightening, and they demand more attention than I have given them in the past.

I know there are people like me out there, people with moderate food allergies, people who consider this allergy to be a mere inconvenience -- nothing to fuss over. And this may be so. But after my experience, I will be taking a number of steps to prevent such occurrences in the future, and I highly recommend anyone with this level of allergy do the same.

1. I will carry at least one dose of Benadryl with me at all times in eating situations. This is just common sense, and something I should have been much better about in the past.

2. I will not be shy about asking about ingredients on a restaurant menu, even if it seems like the dish will not be a problem. This is not about being picky. This is not about seeming pushy. This is about protecting my health.

3. I will be visiting a general physician in the near future to have a full allergy test done. This may not be necessary for many of you other allergic folk out there, but the last time I had an allergy test done, I was about seven years old. You forget things after fourteen years, and you almost certainly didn't understand them well enough to begin with. Also, some allergies can develop or disappear given enough time. My server on Wednesday night assured me repeatedly that there were no nuts in the dish I had ordered. It's possible (though unlikely) that I have developed an allergy I don't even know about yet. (Certainly it would explain the severity of my reaction if this is the case, as I've never had anywhere near the same level of reaction with any previous encounters with nuts.)

In short, I will be taking steps to be much more careful in the future. I've treated my allergies like no big deal in the past, and I've been careless. If you have an allergy like mine, manifesting in relatively minor reactions (scratchy throat, sleepiness, etc.), I strongly recommend that you make sure you are prepared and knowledgeable in the event of a stronger attack. It may not happen to you. It may never happen to you. But I was sick as a dog last night after a lifetime of very minor reactions, and it scared me badly. I thought I knew what to expect from my allergies, but I was wrong, and I was unprepared for the consequences.

Anyone have any tips for living with food allergies? I'm in an advice-collecting mood, so feel free to share in the comments.

This has been a public service announcement from your scared-prepared book-blogging buddy. Be prepared and stay safe, everyone.