Monday, May 25, 2009

The Harry Potter Series

Since "geek" is not a derogatory term from which I've fled in my life, I write here this day to announce my recent completion of the 7 book Harry Potter series. I took about 10 months to complete this task, and overall I enjoyed the series. I would stop short of saying they were the best books I have ever read or that I'm going to race out to movie premiers dressed as a wizard. But nonetheless, I enjoyed the series, the cast of characters, and the plot that befell the one and only Harry Potter.

The general gist of the series is that Harry Potter is an orphaned boy who through some curious magical friends discovers that as an infant survived an attack from the evil wizard Voldemort, an attack that took the lives of his parents. The framework of the series is that Potter learns more and more about his parents and the bad dude at Hogwarts, a school for wizards. The school has seven grades and the series has seven books, each book another year in the boy wizard's life. The overall series was at its best when the action took place at the school, rather than off its grounds, but the later books dictated that increasing amounts of action occur away from Hogwarts. In the end, the story comes full circle as Potter and Voldemort square off on school grounds.

1.) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

The first book was Becky's least favorite, and while I disagree, I can see why she thinks so. The series is what it is because of the great character development JK Rowling employs. However, at the very start, getting to know the hoards of people is burdensome. Additionally the reader, like Harry, is learning the rules of the wizarding world (brooms flying, sporting activities, etc.) which takes time to develop. In later books, the reader knows all of this in advance and it's like riding a bike, but the first go around can be a bit much. The plot is clever with a suspenseful ending, and the book is a serviceable framework for later chapters in the saga while still completing a story.

2.) Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

As I began reading the second book, I was eager to jump back into Harry's life at Hogwarts and the new friends he met at said school. But in what would prove to be a reoccurring theme throughout the series, I had to persevere through nearly 100 pages of Harry in the non-wizarding world, agonizing as I was, when he would return. I found this to be Rowling's primary weakness in writing where it appeared to she wanted to stretch out books for no real reason. Nonetheless, the action picks up quickly once back at Hogwarts where Harry and his two best pals Hermione and Ron discover secrets at the school untouched for years. When Ron's youngest sister, Ginny, falls into trouble, Harry and pals race to save the day. An entertaining second effort.

3.) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Having not been part of the Harry Potter craze from the get go, I wonder if the series took off on its spectacular popularity after book 2 as book 3 and those thereafter triple in length. While 1 and 2 might have been written in succession, book 3 elevates in complexity of story telling that required an extra skill level. The story here revolves around a mysterious new teacher, an escaped convict, and Potter's growing rivalry with the Potions Professor, Severus Snape. All three become critical characters in later installments, and for the first time, the series flashes back to establish the history (and eventual future) of these three crazy cats. Another quirky ending left me with a favorable rating with this being my second favorite book of the entire series.

4.) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

My overall favorite book would be this fourth one where Harry grows out of the child label and into the young man that the rest of the wizarding world would later rely on. It's kind of the Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, but fighting for good for those nerds out there that are getting these sci-fi references. The neighboring wizarding schools get together for the Tri-Wizard tournament that determines the best young wizard in the world. The plot revolves around three tasks for this tournament that increase in order of difficulty and danger until for the first time in three books - an achievement in delayed gratification - Potter deals with the Voldemort character for the first time. The setting and intensity of this meeting was my favorite part of the series, and the ending an incredible leap that left me eager for the rest of the series.

5.) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Having really enjoyed book 3 and loving book 4, I can easily say that book 5 was a tremendous disappointment and my least favorite of all 7 books. This fifth installment was meant to be a call to arms in the war of good and evil. Rather than an action packed race to ready, the primary characters are confined to a single hideout, doing more hiding than anything. Chapter after chapter dealt with dark rooms, whispers, and a battle of media perception (think Spiderman - again, I am a dork and I am comfortable with this). The decrease in action from fighting overgrown snakes, body snatching bad guys, dragon slaying, and three headed dogs from books one through four are replaced by Harry trying to go on dates, which while a nice attempt into what a normal 15 year old might be doing are not Rowling's strong suit. Her strong suit are her finales, but this is her weakest one of the bunch. The good guys run around a blur of a setting that has weird surroundings for the sake of being weird and offer nothing to the overall conclusion other than to say the lack of attention to physics make the story hard to follow rather than uniquely magical. Compared to an alternate setting elsewhere in the series of a graveyard that clearly sets the tone and stakes at hand, the Ministry of Magic basement conclusion was sub-par. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a big time thumbs down for yours truly.

6.) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

I know of several people that have read the series that did not care for this installment of the book, but I maintain that it was necessary to build to the finale. In this chapter of the series, Potter spends a tremendous amount of time with his mysterious mentor, Albus Dumbledore. Now Dumbledore had made it habit in the first five books of showing up at the end to explain everything. He was a mysterious character who in the end, was always at the right place at the right time. A likable chap, Dumbledore takes center stage in this installment, shedding the shadows and leading Harry along. Rowling very cleverly manages to spend a significant portion of the book in flashback mode to offer some additional build up for the inevitable extreme good (Potter) versus extreme evil (Voldermort). The book gets very intense toward the end as the necessary passing of the torch sets up the finale in the series. But it is in the frantic endings where Rowling writes best, and she does well to finish up Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

7.) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Ah, the grand finale! I have been asked by several what I thought of the last book, and I answer truthfully in that I abhorred the first half and loved the last half. In the first four hundred pages, roughly one exciting thing happens (the flight from the Dursley residence). When the earlier plots occurred at Hogwarts, Rowling was able to throw in little nuances that made the build up for conclusion fun and whimsical. Taken out of Hogwarts, Harry Potter flees bad guys in the boringest of fashions. I had faith that the book would get better, and it did, but in answering whether a book is good or not, I feel the need to resist answering with the last taste in my mouth and instead consider the whole body of work.

What I did like about the finale, I really liked. Rowling does not hesitate to kill off characters, which while sounding demonic of me, was most enjoyable. For the ultimate climax of the series has to be built up in such a way where the reader feels the seriousness of the situation, and eliminating beloved but expendable characters does just that. Those characters who survive the book have well defined roles and excellent closure. The dramatic of reveal of the dark Severus Snape is among the best writing in the whole series as the sometimes good guy sometimes bad guy shows his true colors. The final chapter of years later wraps up the entire series and gives the reader a sense of finality.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The epic baseball disaster of May 15, 2009

While a little slow in finally getting around to make this post, I feel it still worthy to do for the simple fact that I like to wallow in my baseball misery. Cleveland fans typically wallow, for we do it better than any other fan that except for, of course, the common Cub fan. But on Friday, May 15, 2009, my sorrows spread from not just my beloved Indians but to a couple other teams as well.

All started well as I was in Kansas City, Kansas visiting some old colleagues and ready to take in baseball in a stadium I never had the pleasure of entering. The weather forecast was ominous with a touch of death expected by early afternoon. The good news was that trusty told us that by game time, the storms would taper off leaving us a lovely night of baseball. At 5:30pm, we left Kansas for the Missouri stadium. At 5:31pm, the heavens opened.

We arrived in Arrowhead Stadium's parking lot at approximately 6:20pm and illegally veered away from proper parking to reserved parking (criminals!) for fear of the rain. At 7pm, we were hardly surprised to learn that the game would not be starting on time as but 5 minutes from first pitch, the rain fell harder than ever. Lightning struck around us and Kaufman Stadium had some bizarre lighting and siren system that signaled the end times. Meanwhile, some PR goof with a microphone was allowed to roam the stadium asking Family Feud type questions which were shown on Kansas City's ultra-mega-super humongous scoreboard which was easily visible from the truck the four of us were waiting out the rain delay. He probably died in a lightning strike.

We, however, were listening to some sports talk radio, getting regular updates on the games in the other parts of the country where the world wasn't ending. Among the games of interest were my Cleveland Indians taking on the defending American League Champions, Tampa Bay Rays, and my adopted, very close second favorite team the Minnesota Twins in New York to play the Yankees. Both began marvelously as early leads for both Cleveland and Minnesota tempered the crabbiness that only accompanies sitting in the back of a pick-up truck with leg room measured in centimeters.

The local feed took over the sports talk station to give us an estimate of 8:30pm as being the new start time. 90 minutes. Well, it's not great, but at least they are trying to get the game in. Royals' ace Zack Greinke was to pitch and by all means, the home field advantage had Kansas City trying desperately to get him in on normal days rest. To further matters, Friday night happened to be fireworks night and some food promotion that in combination with Greinke managed to sell out a game in Kansas City, which to the best of my (limited) knowledge hasn't happened since 1964. With this in mind, all must wait every last minute in an attempt to get the game in!

8:30pm: Hurricane Hallmark was no closer to letting up. The lightning was as frequent and intense as ever and the rain was coming down like taking a shower. After over two hours of waiting, the group agreed to call it a night and hope to get a doubleheader in tomorrow.

9:00pm: After scurrying away from the epicenter of weather disaster, the group stumbled upon some local eatery in which we gobbled down some necessary sustenance after hours with nothing more than Doritos and Lays (of which I ate none, forever holding out that I'd be able redeem my Friday food voucher). Upon sitting down, we find that Minnesota has a 2-run lead heading into the 9th inning. Beautiful! Likewise, Cleveland is dominating Tampa with a 7-run lead. All is well and made even more well by peperoni pizza.

Shortly before 9:15, the evening's tone changed dramatically. The local joint had a band playing. A loud band for which there was a $5 cover charge that we avoided by simply going in a second entrance. One of the group decided to point out that an Asian man in the street was up to no good at just the moment the band stopped playing, leading to an uncomfortable moment in which all of us were thought to be racist. The god of Shin Soo Choo was not amused, and the baseball tables turned.

For immediately there following the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles began playing baseball. Our tickets were worthless, our free food gone, and the fireworks fizzled out. No doubleheader, no Zach Greinke, and still no leg room. But hey, at least we had pizza, we had the Indians up 7, and the Twins had Joe Nathan. A sure lock for at least something positive.

1.) Some guy named Gardner triples.
2.) Mark Teixiera singles home a run.
3.) A-Rod walks.
4.) Matsui whiffs, one down.
5.) Swisher grounds out, two down.
6.) Intentionally walk Robinson Cano to get the force out.
7.) Melky Cabrera inexplicably singles to center, scoring two runs and winning a game against the steady hand of Joe Nathan.

Understandably, I'm the only individual in the local eatery upset about these seven batters and the outcome of this game. I'm probably a little more upset given that I just missed out on one of two baseball games I hopped on a plane to see, but hey at least Cleveland is thrashing the Rays by seven.

Final score:
Tampa Bay 8
Cleveland 7

Anthony Reyes given a massive lead couldn't get out of the 6th inning. Tony Sipp graced everyone with a six pitch walk, throwing a wild pitch for good measure. Jensen Lewis, in one inning of work, managed a WHIP of 3.00. Rafael Betancourt gave up a home run to a career .230 hitter. Luis Vzcaino made his Cleveland debut by failing to record an out and allowing BJ Upton (hitting .190 on the season) to walk off with a game winning home run. Since then, Cleveland has yet to win a game managing to lose by blowing a 3 run lead with their closer on the hill and a game in which a line-up snafu eliminated the designated hitter thereby allowing the pitcher to get in on the embarrassment with an RBI double.

And so concludes the epic baseball disaster of May 15, 2009. A typhoon wasting away Kansas City tickets, a closer gone astray in New York, and the laughable saga of the worse team in baseball pissing away a seven run lead all combined to an absolutely horrific baseball evening.

Friday, May 1, 2009

You may like this post. You may not like this post.

While checking my Yahoo e-mail just a few moments ago, I saw this non-committal headline:

Obama's high court choice could be Hispanic, woman (AP)

Also, his high court choice could be black, white, male, female, tall, short, fat, skinny, funny, serious, gay, straight, Norwegian, or a spider. Well, maybe not a spider.