Monday, August 31, 2009

Literary Influences

I've been thinking a lot about literary influences lately. Partly this stems from all the reading I've been doing, especially in the fantasy genre, where more and more I see things bubbling in the giant "cauldron of story" that J.R.R. Tolkien talked about. Sometimes it's difficult to know just who put what in the pot first, or when and how an author added his or her own special ingredients or gave it a unique stir.

I find it fascinating to wonder how certain stories grew, especially when elements jump out as being so similar in tone or atmosphere to another (often earlier) work. Did the author borrow directly? Did the author perhaps read that other work once at a crucial place in their own formation and development as a person or writer? Did they read it over and over and perhaps soak the story in so deeply that they no longer know where that story finishes and their own starts?

Or are the similarities "coincidental" or unconscious? Could it be that author A has never read author B, but they both share a love of author C (or even art or music or poetry D) and that influence has permeated their work in similar ways, giving their very different stories a similar flavor or scent?

Or is it that there really are only so many stories that can be told in this world, despite the huge variety of people who live them and tell them? Could it be that our shared humanity runs so deep that our memories/experiences are more kin than we usually acknowledge?

And how much does shared genre shape an author's choice? If a writer knows that he or she is plowing familiar territory in a certain kind work, do they perhaps choose to draw (or find themselves drawing naturally) on certain images, character types, symbols, and even narrative rhythms?

I find this whole topic fascinating, but I also find myself welcoming the opportunity to widen the discussion of literary influence beyond mere echoes and similarities of content and style. I recently finished a book that does just that: Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.

Although it's not just about Lewis, Glyer's book has joined what I'm coming to think of as my canon of personal favorite books about C.S. Lewis. It's a painstaking and highly readable work of scholarship. More than the meticulous research that went into it, however, and the many new facts I learned about some of my favorite authors, I enjoyed it for its fresh approach to the topic of the Inklings. Glyer asks readers to consider the question of literary influence in much broader perspective than we usually consider it (the context I laid out in the earlier part of this post). She looks at the way community fosters influence, assessing mutual influence by looking not just at similar writing style or writing interest, but by looking at the ways writers in community affect one another as "resonators, opponents/critics, editors, collaborators, and referents." She then proceeds to look at the interaction of the Inklings in light of those categories.

The book gave me much to think about as a reader and a writer, and as someone who appreciates the writing friends and community I have (and longs for more). What role do our writing friends, our resonators, play in our creativity? A far larger role than we might guess, I think.

All of which leads me back to the thoughts that fascinate me about the "echoes" I hear in certain stories. We may never know what lies behind a certain turn of phrase, a choice of image, a decision about a character. But we can be sure that such writerly choices are not made in isolation, even if a writer thinks they're working completely "on their own." There's really no such thing as "on you're own" when you join in the long conversation of creativity that flows down through the ages. When you step up to the pot to create your "own" recipe, you never really start from scratch.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

School Tomorrow

The sweet girl is in bed, and the first day of school muffins* are in the oven. The living room and dining room (our main school spaces) have been cleaned. The white board has been scrubbed, a lovely blank space awaiting the three-pack of new white board pens I've been saving up for just this occasion (the sweet girl loves to draw on the white board, so we go through those faster than you'd believe!).

Yes, first day of school tomorrow!

And we're so excited. Our third year of schooling together -- well, our third official year. We've been learning/teaching since the day she was born.

I am such a creature of habit and routine. Rituals are important to me at a deep heart level. I considered writing about that, but then I came across this blog post at Holy Experience that said it all better than I could. I resonated with this post at deep heart levels, and I joyed to the fact that the writer quotes from one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton passages of all time, a passage I fell in love with about twenty years ago when I first came across it in college.

Happy ceremony; happy firsts and repeated firsts. Happy start of the school year to all.

*A virtual gold star to anyone who can guess how our first day of school muffin tradition started. Clue: it came from literary inspiration.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer Blessings

We finally got our mini-vacation in Erie: two nights and most of three days of wonderful outdoor time. How grateful we were for the gift that enabled us to go.

We stayed in a very small, rustic cabin in a campground in a rural area about 20 minutes from the peninsula. I laughed at the memories that cabin brought back of my years as a camper and especially as a camp counselor. The sweet girl saw her first granddaddy longlegs, tasted her first toasted marshmallows (well, the first ones not toasted over the blue gas flame on our oven burner) and saw thousands of stars.

That late night of incredible stars was perhaps the highlight of the trip for her Dad and me...after a long day on the shore by Lake Erie, to come back to the cabin and find the sky above us dark and cloudless and just awash with more stars than either of us had seen in years, more stars than we'd ever been able to show our little girl before. You could even see the slight, silvery band of the Milky Way. We wrapped the sweet girl up in her Daddy's sweatshirt (it was much colder than we anticipated in the evenings!) which looked like a long dress on her, and we all just marveled over those stars, while listening to the peeping of frogs across the field. D. and I saw two shooting stars, which S. just missed.

I knew I was green-hungry, but hadn't realized how star-starved I was. Even the lights of a small city really drown them out. It's comforting to remember anew that they're there, bright and glittering tokens of God's splendor and goodness.

The shore was just lovely. So much stress and tension we've had this year, and somehow, in God's goodness, we were able to lay it all aside for those two days and just soak up the sounds of wind and waves. The first evening on the beach was misty and gray, the first full day there was cloudy and a bit chilly, a lovely mix of blue and gray (see photo above!) and the final day was hot and clear, with an almost cloudless blue sky, D's favorite kind of beach day. We loved the variety.

And the afternoon we arrived, we were able to meet up with Erin (dear friend and faithful blog reader!) and her parents, who treated us to an afternoon at the Erie zoo. The sweet girl loved the huge tortoise, her dad loved the red pandas, and I felt especially fond of the two very lovey-dovey giraffes who kept hugging each other with their slender necks. Thank you, Erin and family, for a terrific afternoon!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giver of the Green

My mourning for our little bit of grass got to swirling around in my mind last evening. It collided with some words from C.S. Lewis that I had happened to read yesterday morning.

Lewis was writing (in A Grief Observed) about the "right ordering" of our praise. So many good things we love are deserving of praise, but our highest praise is reserved for the Giver of those good things.

"Praise in due order...up from the garden to the Gardener, from the sword to the Smith. To the life-giving Life and the Beauty that makes beautiful."

I love these lines. It seems to me that Lewis is saying our best loves, our deepest admiration, what we value most, should cause us to look up, even higher, to the Giver behind all those things. His capitalization of Gardener, Smith, Life and Beauty leaves no doubt that he is referring to the Giver in all those wonderful terms. It is God who makes the garden beautiful, refines the silver, gives life, and whose Beauty is reflected in all that's beautiful.

It's even more poignant when you reflect that Lewis here is thinking about his relationship with his late wife, Joy. All the good in her, all that he loved (and still loved) in her, ultimately made him look up in joy and thanksgiving to the One who made her, even in the midst of his grief.

Somehow it makes my sadness over the loss of a small patch of grass seem both less significant and more significant at the same time.

All these thoughts tumbled into this prayer-poem I wrote last night.

Giver of Green

Praise for the grass
and the tiny creatures
who shelter in the
forest of its stems

Praise for the rootlets
of wildflowers and
the clover heads thick
with tempting scent
that beckons to the bees

Praise for the morning dew
and the tracings of frost
like shining jewels
flung at our undeserving feet

But most of all

Praise to the Giver of Green
who grows my life with gladness.

~EMP 8/09

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lament For My Little Patch of Green

Long-time readers of this blog know of my ongoing struggle with the lack of green in my life. For those of you just tuning in: we're yardless apartment dwellers in a small city with lots of concrete and glass and not nearly enough grass or trees, in my humble opinion, though I am grateful for every bit we live near.

Though I've made peace with our family's call to be where we are and do what we do, that does not mean I don't still miss (sometimes greatly) green grass and trees. In fact, if you'll pardon the pun, I sometimes literally pine for green at deep heart-levels.

From our window, we can see ten sycamore trees across the road and an asphalt parking lot from where we live. Those ten trees are sometimes a real life-line for me: I'm not sure I could survive the ongoing monotony of asphalt or the onslaught of winter gray otherwise.

For years, next to the parking lot on the nearer side to our building, there has been a strip of bright green grass. Except for the even more narrow strip by the benches beneath the sycamores, this is the largest patch of grass near us for blocks. We often park right next to it, and I'm always thankful to be able to step out of the car and onto grass, even for a moment. Visitors sometimes joke with us about it being our little bit of lawn.

Well, the grass is no more. I'm not joking when I say I feel like I'm in mourning. The folks who own the building and parking lot next door apparently got tired of having to mow that bit of grass (or so I'm assuming). They brought in a big backhoe kind of vehicle (or whatever you call the vehicle that plows up sod) and stripped it bare this weekend. I held out momentary though faint hope that they planned to re-sod it, maybe even put in a bush or two. But it became quickly apparent they had no such intention.

The concrete mixer arrived about an hour ago. As I speak, workmen are smoothing a perfectly smooth layer of concrete about twenty feet long. A new sidewalk.

And I just want it to go away. Sorry to sound so bleak -- in general, I enjoy sidewalks and even feel very grateful for them as I walk a lot in a city -- but now when I look out my front window, there is no immediate relief to the gray concrete. No bright patch of green. Perhaps you think it's silly to mourn 15-20 feet of grass and dirt, but when I think of all the times we've played in it, watched bugs in it, marveled over the wasp like creatures that hatch there each summer (we always have a couple of weeks where we have to exit the car on the opposite side) picked clover from it (poor bees, poor bunnies) seen snow fall on it in the bleak winter, and just plain felt grateful for that little patch of "our lawn" I feel seriously sad.

All afternoon I've been contemplating the writing of a story where a champion named Prince Verdi saves a small town from a concrete monster.

Folks, here's the long and short of it: the world needs more green and less concrete. Trust me on this.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Second Grade Language Arts: Wishlist and Ponderings

I've been pondering what we'll be doing for language arts in our second grade homeschool this year. (By the way, we've officially named ourselves Lamplight Academy now, so if you hear me refer to Lamplight in the future, you'll know I mean our home learning!)

By language arts, I mean all the things that, combined, make up our language studies. For right now, that includes reading, handwriting/penmanship, grammar, and basic narration skills.

Under reading, our time is divided (quite unevenly at this point) between read-aloud time, which we do a lot, and independent reading, which I try to encourage the sweet girl to do for at least a few minutes per day.

Our read-aloud time goes across the disciplines. We read history, science and art books together as well as what I simply term "literary read-alouds" (stories). We work on narration skills (where I ask questions and prompt S. to "tell back" what she's heard) in all those areas. We hit it hardest in history and science, though we also do some fun "re-telling" with literature, mostly in the form of story disks.

Handwriting and penmanship time has been mostly focused on copywork. We've used the Handwriting Without Tears materials and they've been marvelous. We've also done general copywork. I've come up with some of the exercises and we've used some of the Draw Write Now materials (volume 1). I'm still exploring what resources I'll be using as I increase copywork time this year.

For grammar (and further time on narration/oral usage) we've been using Jessie Wise's First Language Lessons. We plan to use that again this year, though I plan to step up the pace a bit.

What I'm trying to decide at this point is what sort of approach I want to take to copywork/writing time. She needs more confidence in penmanship, but I also want to use our copywork time more fruitfully to help her think about sentence structure and other basic writing skills. We need to build more of this time into our schedule consistently and I need to find ways to make it more enjoyable for her. Even after all the time we spent last year (and I thought it was going so and learn!) the sweet girl is still balking about writing lower case letters. All summer long, whenever it was time to write anything: a thank you note, a birthday card, etc., she would beg to write it in capitals. I asked her why, and she got all flustered and told me she wasn't as good at writing lower-case letters. When I gently encouraged her and tried to explain to her the importance of continuing to practice, she got very anxious and moved into "I don't want to! I'll just write everything in capitals my whole life."

So...any fleeting thoughts I might have had about moving onto cursive in second grade were quickly shoved aside. We need more printing practice. I decided to go on and purchase the Handwriting Without Tears Printing Power workbook for 2nd grade (she really enjoys their workbooks) and also the teacher's guide, hoping the materials will inspire us.

I'll continue to use FLL, as I mentioned above, though stepping up the pace. I very much want to use Susan Wise Bauer's Writing With Ease materials (text and workbook one) but simply can't afford them. They're on the absolute top of my wish-list of materials this year.

Since I can't use WWE, I am looking at the materials I have on hand. Since we've been blessed to be the recipients of many homeschooling resources from friends, I've got some things to choose from: I have at least some materials I could use this year from various programs: Writing Strands, Learning Language Through Literature, and IEW materials. If anyone out there has used any of these in conjunction with FLL, I'd love to hear about that. I personally think that LLATL looks like it would be an excellent complement to FLL, and am learning toward using their 2nd grade book this year.

I should mention that, as we go into our third year of schooling, I am feeling both stretched and blessed. This is the first time we're going into a new school year with what feels like the bare minimum of resources. In the past, I've used my review-writing income to purchase our yearly books, but our ongoing financial struggles mean we're always just an unexpected bill away from having to spend such income on necessities. That happened this year. Almost everything I earned from reviews went to car repairs, dentist bills, and/or food. I would honestly be in a bit of a panic if it wasn't for incredible homeschooling friends who have rallied by handing off resources to me that they either no longer need or don't need this coming year. Teacher's guides for our math program, history resources galore, even a Scripture-memorization CD (which I can't imagine schooling without...we've used CDs from this particular set for the past two years and it's colored our days so beautifully). Despite the fact that there are several things I still wish I had on my shelves, I am completely thankful for the loans and gifts from dear friends.

Even without some things I think I "need," the school year is coming. And I am so looking forward to new learning and teaching opportunities!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quarry Speech and Kything

In the past couple of years, Shannon Hale has become one of my favorite fantasy authors for young adults. I first really fell for her work a couple of years ago when I read Princess Academy. Recently I re-read it again twice: to myself, and out-loud to my husband (who really liked it, and who was pleasantly surprised by the un-Disney nature of the story, given its title!).

I liked it even better the second and third times around, partly because I was fully prepared to enter into the world of Mt. Eskel. Since I knew the characters and the contour of the plot already, I was able to pay more attention to Hale's world-building. I'm impressed by the details she provides about life for the villagers on Mt. Eskel and how that builds a credible, substantial world for the story.

Hale tells us about the strength of the mountain itself, the beauty of the mountain views, the smell of the goats they herd, the beautifully streaked linder stone, the wild miri flowers that grow in cracks of stone, the chips and shards of rock that cut into thinning boot soles, the essential poverty of the people who must work hard to cut enough stone to trade for goods each season. She helps us understand that, while they're illiterate, they have an amazing communal memory which is showcased in festival time through the creativity of their "story-shouts." She describes their folk dances, their physical strength, their skill in mining linder, their lack of political status as members of a non-provincial territory of the kingdom of Danland, the way they care for one another. She hints at the lacks some of them feel by not having time or space in their lives for gardens or art (and their yearning to see the far-off ocean). And of course, she describes the way they communicate with one another in the quarry, using a language without words, often communicated through the sounds and rhythms of the work, tools and stone.

A huge part of Miri's coming of age, and her growing understanding of herself as a true daughter of the mountain, is her newfound ability to sing the mountain's songs even when she is cut off from many of the places and people she once thought were needed to make such speech possible. Before she left for the academy, she had never used quarry speech because she'd never been allowed inside the quarry (her father has his reasons, but he doesn't explain them to her, hence her feeling of uselessness). Her sojourn at the princess academy, along with eleven other girls from their territory, is not precisely an exile, but it functions as one, or at least a time away in a very different place where new thoughts and ideas and dreams arise (which strikes me as a notion one might come across in a Shakespearean comedy). While Miri is there, out of necessity she learns the music of the quarry, and unexpectedly discovers that she can speak/sing it outside of the quarry itself, as long as she is physically touching any stone that can be traced to a vein of linder. That unseen network of linder veins becomes a beautiful, unconscious scaffolding as Miri learns the secret of the speech is built on shared memories/community.

I guess the first time I read the book, I was so involved in the excitement of a first read-through that parallels didn't come to me, but this time through I found myself reading the descriptions of quarry speech and thinking about kything.

Kything is the form of unspoken communication that Madeleine L'Engle developed in her fantasy novels for young adults many years ago, particularly in A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O'Keefe learn to communicate with one another and with other people/creatures across vast distances and without words. The concept is developed throughout the books -- it's not actually named as kything until Wind, when Meg is tutored in the practice by Proginoskes, the singular cheribum who partners with her against the evil, unnaming Echthroi. What intrigues me is that, in that first instance where it's named, Progo works with Meg to help her remember a memory that she didn't realize she had stored in her brain. She heard a conversation (not realizing its full import) and thought she'd forgotten it, but Progo, in communicating/communing with her, is able to pull the memory forth so that she can see it and hear it clearly again. Meg becomes a particularly adept kyther, especially with Charles Wallace in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. While he's off riding a unicorn on the wind to save the planet from nuclear peril, she's in her attic bedroom, keeping her hand on a dog (whom we're led to believe just might be part guardian angel) since the act of touching the warm fur of the living creature seems to connect her more closely to her little brother's mind and heart. Shades of linder lines.

Meg also kythes deeply with Calvin, the young man who will grow up to be her husband. Their intimacy of communication is similar to what she shares with others, but also different, tinged with eros as well as philos, I guess you might say (and all of it bathed somehow in agape). The nuances are hard to describe, but definitely there, reminding me of Miri's ability to quarry-speak most clearly, especially when in peril, with the young man closest to her own heart, Peder. Although their feelings for one another have not been fully acknowledged or recognized even by themselves, the feelings are there (which Hale makes beautifully clear from their awkwardness around one another).

More than Meg and Calvin, however, Peder and Miri's ability to communicate reminded me forcefully of Vicky Austin and Adam Eddington in A Ring of Endless Light. If absolutely forced to choose a favorite L'Engle novel, I would probably choose Ring, which I read over and over again between the ages of 15-25. I don't know why it never dawned on me with any forcefulness (until now!) that the unspoken communication developed in Ring looks an awful lot like kything. Vicky experiences an ability to communicate without words (and to receive communications, often in the form of wordless images) first with dolphins (animals are always very important in Madeleine's work) and then with Adam, the young man who introduces her to the dolphins.

Maybe one reason I never made an explicit connection is because distinctions used to be often made between Madeleine's "chronos" books and her "kairos" books. In her so-called kairos books, characters were not bound by the normal nature of time, while characters in the chronos books never time-traveled. That's a useful enough distinction in some regards, but it's not so easy to break her books down into categories of "fantasy" and "realism" with the kairos books neatly falling into one and the chronos books into the other. Even in her more realistic books, where the characters don't fly with unicorns, there are mystical elements. Vicky, after all, flies with dolphins.

I've wandered far afield. My main observation is that Miri's unspoken message to Peder felt familiar, not in a derivative way, but in a lovely, shared tradition way. Peder's response in her time of peril mirrors Adam's. Vicky and Adam's wondering exchange (once the peril is past) is so sweet and simple: "I called you --" "And I came," he said. Words that could have been quarry-sung in another book, time and place.

Monday, August 10, 2009

10 Things I Missed in the Half-Blood Prince Movie

Due to budget and time constraints, I knew I was going to have to wait for this summer's newest Harry Potter film installment to wend its way to the family theater in our little town. It finally did that this weekend, and I was at last able to sit back and enjoy Half-Blood Prince.

I've been exercising considerable restraint by not reading many reviews beforehand! I did give in and read a couple, but even as I read them, I felt like I was trying to skim while keeping my fingers crossed behind my back. I really wanted to see what surprised, delighted or disappointed me on my own terms. I'm looking forward to going back and really reading some reviews in-depth now!

I plan to write a full review at Epinions, but some initial observations started spinning in my head on the walk home from the theater Saturday. Despite the title, please don't think this is just a list of nit-picks. I weave in thoughts about things I enjoyed as well. HP purist that I am, some changes and omissions bothered me more than others, because they felt like missed opportunities.

Still I found I was able to enter the movie on its own terms more easily than usual. The film world of Harry Potter is so different than the book world that in some ways that's getting easier...with each installment, I feel like we're returning to a world that feels more consistently familiar, even if it still doesn't feel like the landscape of the books.

Without further ado, here were 10 things I especially missed:

1. Color. I expected this film to be emotionally dark, but even the trailers didn't prepare me for this film's visual darkness. Sometimes it wasn't even so much darkness as plain lack of color in key places. The cave scene where Dumbledore drinks the awful potion guarding the fake horcrux is one case in point. The whole scene felt washed out, full of blacks, whites, grays...there was almost an ice sculpture feel to the inferi-surrounded island with the basin, and certainly no green glow. That poisonous Slytherinesque green always felt central to me.

I liked the bright green serpentine hourglass in Slughorn's office, which provided an arresting visual link between the Slughorn-Riddle memory sequences. But I just missed color: the brighter gold I'd always imagined for liquid luck, the more lurid colors of Dumbledore's plum colored suit in the memory sequence where he first meets young Riddle. The memory sequences themselves felt purposefully infused with a washed-out/bad-print old movie feel, made murkier by that inkblot-in-water pensieve effect the filmmakers clearly loved. Cool effect, but it made the whole memory sequences feel less substantial somehow, more dream-like than something Harry actually bodily fell into and experienced.

And speaking of the pensieve memories, kudos to the set designers for that odd medieval castle-like cabinet where Dumbledore kept all the little vials of Voldemort memories, each of them dated and sorted. More than anything that actually got said (Kloves in his usual "exposition be scorned" mode) the shots of that cabinet gave us a real understanding of how long and hard Dumbledore had worked to catalog and understand Voldemort's past.

2. "You are with me/I am not worried, Harry…I am with you." The key Dumbledore quotes of the book, and the ones that so brilliantly bookend the narrative action and emphasize the turning of the tide. I had been prepared for this glaring omission by Janet and Erin, but I still felt stupefied by their exclusion. I know the whole Dumbledore/Harry relationship has been played quite differently in the films than within the books, but even so, the inclusion of these lines would have felt like a no-brainer for me had I been writing that screenplay!

3. "Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!" Was anyone else as excited as I was about hearing Alan Rickman deliver those lines, with all their venom and hidden meaning? I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by their absence. The films are famous for not giving Rickman enough screen time, and though he squeezes every ounce from every scene (I especially thought he did well with the unbreakable vow) I was disappointed in his final scenes. The whole climax was disappointing but the lack of anguish in Snape when confronted by Harry was especially disappointing.

I may not be playing fair: the anguish was there, I guess, just not at all at the level of intensity as I'd imagined it -- and that goes for Harry's anger too. Hardly anyone seemed to notice, for instance, that Hagrid's house had just burst into flames. Where was Fang's howling (which could have served to heighten the tension and also remind legions of faithful HP readers that Snape's pain was described in terms of the dog in the burning house)? Where was Harry's fear over the possible loss of Hagrid (for that matter, where was Hagrid in this film? Hardly around.) The fact that we'd also already seen the Burrow (the Burrow?!?) set on fire also lessened the impact here. My goodness, but they gave a lot of screen time to Bellatrix, who seemed to get her kicks from destroying or torching anything in reach.

4. Neville. I know he doesn't do much in this book, but they preserved almost no role for him at all. I guess Draco's increased role (very well-played by Tom Felton) squeezed out any possibility, but I missed Neville. They did a better job of giving Luna some moments and she's not prominent in this storyline either.

5. The Battle at Hogwarts. I was prepared for this to be missing too, but I still couldn't fathom why. The film does a terrific job of showing us Draco's tortured obsession with his "mission" and the mounting tension of his plans...clearly something, something BIG! is supposed to happen with that spooky vanishing cabinet in the Room of Requirement. (Another bravo for the visuals of the cabinets...I could somehow never quite picture what those things should look like when I read about them, and the cruelly pointed angles and antique look were great.)

In the end, however, the fact that Draco manages to get death eaters into Hogwarts doesn't seem to make any difference at all. Why were they there? They "encourage" him in his task on the tower, they mock Dumbledore a little bit, they exult Dumbledore’s death, and then they hightail it out there in an obedient little line behind the hustling Snape, with only Bellatrix doing her manic bully-dance and destructive bit in the Great Hall. I have heard speculation that the filmmakers felt like they needed to add "menace" to the storyline, hence the weird attack on the burrow, but what more menace do you need than the school itself attacked? I've always felt that those moments with vulnerable 15 year olds fighting death eaters are some of the most perilous. This battle needn't be's more a prelude to the ultimate Battle of Hogwarts at the end of DH...but it should be there. Among other things, it would provide opportunity to show Ginny, Luna, Neville and various order members fighting. I know Ginny gets her moment in the burrow scene, and perhaps they wanted to highlight her, given the romantic build-up between her and Harry (which for the most part, I think they handled well).

6. Harry's invisibility cloak. A key loss. If I'm recalling correctly, we only ever see him use it on the train, when Draco discovers him eavesdropping. Dumbledore doesn't tell him to bring it along or keep it on his person for the entire year, and he certainly doesn't immobilize him beneath it for the key scene on the tower. Maybe they wanted Harry to be more complicit in the scene? His obedience to Dumbledore's orders to stay hidden/not do anything come back to haunt him already at the end of the film, and that's especially played up by the very interesting choice they made to have Snape walk right past him and put his finger to his lips, as though reminding Harry that they're on the "same side.” Ironically, of course, they are, though Harry won't know that for a long time and that moment can only serve to haunt him more in the meantime.

I was expecting to see Harry immobilized, suffering the nightmarish anguish of not being able to move while also under the protection, one last time, of his mentor, who clearly has a plan. While I didn't necessarily like the changes here, I found them interesting. One could argue that we're being set up for the moment when Harry must choose to obey/trust and have the self-control to *not act* on his natural impulses in DH (when he chooses to trust Dumbledore and go after the Horcruxes, not the Hallows). Given the inclusion of the line "trust me" from Dumbledore (which I liked) in the tower scene, I hope that's where they're going.

7. Dumbledore's weakness and gallantry. Just not enough of it here. I don't know how much of this is Gambon's interpretation and how much it comes through in the way they're writing Dumbledore, but he's just so incredibly different than book Dumbledore. We see him weakened initially by the potion in the cave (though he doesn't seem to suffer as much mental anguish) but he snaps back with that huge ring of fire and never really seems to weaken again.

In the book, one gets the feeling that his heroics from the fire-ring up until the tower cost him tremendous and amazing physical effort. The scene where he offers Draco mercy and speaks courteously to the death eaters moves me to tears every time I read it in part because he does these things as he slowly slides, inch by inch, down the wall of the tower, his life and strength almost extinguished, his time already almost poured out. It makes Snape's killing much more understandable as an act of mercy, and it also emphasizes Dumbledore's willing sacrifice of himself. I've always heard his "please" to Snape said in agonized tones. Film Dumbledore was still so calm and in control it was a bit unnerving. And I was surprised, given the fact that I have never failed to cry when reading this scene, that I was completely dry-eyed through the same scene in the film.

8. Ministry menace. One thing that director David Yates did so well in the fifth film was play up the ineptness and petty meanness of the Ministry. I know that permeates the storyline of Phoenix, so perhaps it was a given when thinking about what to emphasize. I missed feeling any sort of ministry presence in this film, beyond a couple of nods from Daily Prophet headlines and a joke in the Weasley twins' new shop (which incidentally did give the film a momentary and dizzying burst of color!). Ministry involvement wouldn't have needed to be as thick as Rowling lays it on but we miss a crucial piece of Harry's coming of age when we don't see his ongoing interaction with official ministry types. A visit from the new minister and an attempt to talk Harry into being the ministry poster boy, calmly rebuffed, would have been a welcome brief inclusion. Given Voldemort's overtaking of the ministry in the final story, and Harry's ongoing clashes with the establishment (think about Scrimgeour's unwilling surrender of the bequests from Albus' will) we could have had some valuable set-up for the final film. As it is, we've not even met Scrimgeour.

9. Exposition about the horcruxes. I bow to Janet Batchler's wisdom; she says they can still get themselves out the hole they've dug on this one in films 7 (parts A and B) and I believe it. But I will be interested to see how. The lack of explanation about horcruxes felt glaring on so many levels (and I wondered if anyone just watching the movies, without the background of the books, would have understood them at all). I missed a lot of things here, including the pensieve memories that would have given us more background on Voldemort and more understanding of his obsession with "things" and places (the ring, the cave).

I thought they took an interesting risk in the pointed way Dumbledore looked at Harry's scar (as though the idea had just come to him? that seemed odd) as they talked about the horcruxes, though Harry's cluelessness, played well by Radcliffe, rang true. I missed the litany of the horcruxes at the end, which book Harry receives and repeats from Dumbledore like marching orders, like a life-line that helps him to understand, at least a little, what he needs to do next. Whenever I read that, I always feel echoes of Aslan giving Jill the signs in the Silver Chair.

10. More time with Moms. Narcissa seemed more fragile than I expected. Without the Gaunt memories from the pensieve, we lost our introduction to Merope. The difference between Harry and Tom's mothers has always felt profound and sad. I also missed more time with the Weasley family -- we hardly see Molly at all, except to watch her mourn the inexplicable loss of her house. And while I thought Slughorn's musings about Lily incredibly moving -- Jim Broadbent turned in an amazing performance -- I still wish there had been a little more talk of Lily in terms of Harry supposedly "inheriting" her potions skill. How easy it would have been to show Snape galled because of that and all its consequent layers of meaning.

I missed other things (Dursleys being lectured by Dumbledore, Moaning Myrtle, Luna's commentary at the Quidditch match, mopey Tonks in love with Lupin) but I think these were my main 10, at least on first viewing. I was pleasantly surprised Rupert Grint's really funny performance as the lovestruck Ron, and I loved the moment where Harry still looked like the magic-struck eleven year old while he watched Dumbledore set Slughorn’s house to rights with a few waves of his wand.

At least on first listen, I found Nicholas Hooper's score disappointing. The main themes he developed in Phoenix (like the "Fireworks" theme for the Weasley twins) were back, but I was hoping to be wowed by his music for the cave or the tower scenes. I don’t remember the music much at all.

All in all, very glad I finally saw the film. I feel genuinely curious about how they’ll approach the two-part finale, especially given the challenges they’ve set themselves! Your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Love Song in Genesis

A few days ago, the sweet girl and I reached a milestone. We finished up a nearly year-long journey through the Bible.

Last August, right around the time we began the new school term, we began reading in Genesis for our morning Bible reading. Our morning time is the most prolonged reading/learning time we have in the Scriptures most days. Although we didn't read the entire Bible this year, we did read large portions of each book. I tried to read significant passages (with at least key verses/passages in shorter books) so she would get a taste for each book, what it said and how it was saying it.

We've been using the International Children's Bible as our version. And last week, we finished up with the final words in Revelation. (As the sweet girl likes to say, the Bible goes from "In" to "Amen"!)

Our recent time in Revelation may have something to do with her musing yesterday, which seemingly came out of nowhere, "everything has an ending." As I reminded her, everything has a beginning too! And we're back to the beginning this week, because as soon as finished up with that final "Amen" that's what she wanted to do...go back to the beginning and start all over. That made my heart sing!

I find myself almost wishing there was something beautiful we could do to mark the occasion of beginning anew with the story. I once helped rolled a Torah scroll in the synagogue to mark the beginning of a new season in their lectionary. I've always loved the beauty of Torah covers, and am thankful for the lighting of the Advent candles that mark the church's move into the new year's Bible reading too.

The sweet girl really loves the book of Genesis. I'm so delighted that she does, because it has long been one of my favorite books. I still recall hearing a sermon series preached on Genesis when I was just a few years older that S. is now, and how that series (though long and pitched to adults, not children) captured my imagination. Certain characters and stories in Genesis have always stood out to me in sharp relief, and certain passages feel huge and momentous.

I love that this is the book where everything begins, and where we're introduced to the living God. I love how we get to know God: his delight in making, his even deeper delight in saving, his ardent desire to rescue and win the world back once our disobedience takes us far from him. I love how we get to know his people, in all their messy fallenness, and how we see ourselves in them. I especially love the moments where everything seems poised, on tip-toes, for God's inbreaking, and how everything seems to paint a picture of his rescuing love: bits of songs and prophecies, God's clothing of Adam and Eve, his shutting of the door of the ark, a rainbow arched in the sky, God's voice and call suddenly sounding out loud and clear to Abram, the ram in the thicket, the window opened onto heaven and the ladder of angels in a very ordinary place as scheming Jacob sleeps, dreams dreamed, men weeping as they reconcile with brothers. I love how the Spirit broods over the face of the deep in the very first verses and continues to hover, and how the whole book, though the first of God's revelation, is already shot through with that deep vision of the triune God, God-in-community, like a gold ribbon we're going to see again and again as the story continues to unfold in the pages of Scripture.

God's love song starts in Genesis, and it's so utterly beautiful. I'm so thankful my daughter loves to hear it. I pray that her ears will become more attuned to God's love song the longer she reads his words and lives in his world.