Sidekicks, false leads, and mystery: Harry Potter volume two

The Chamber of Secrets starts out with a nice and quick summary and slips right back into the action. Harry discovers what it’s like to live like a wizard when he spends the rest of his summer with Ron and the next suspect is presented — Percy.

I know I shouldn’t have fallen for it, but Rowling keeps throwing undeniably questionable events into the plot. Percy must be somehow involved with the mysterious Chamber of Secrets and petrified half-breeds. The Chamber of Secrets also makes it quite evident why the Harry Potter series encourages tolerance through the “hunting” of half-breeds by the monster that is released from the Chamber.

This volume is filled with tense moments between Potter and Malfoy (and Malfoy senior). Ginny, Ron’s little sister, enters Hogwarts and appears to be a future love interest for Harry. Perhaps there was even some flirting between Ron and Hermione. Potter strengthens his standing as a hero for those who are held down by the dark and powerful through his release of Dobby, a tricky elf, at the end of the novel.

The ups and downs are well paced, but I’m ready to transition to the books for an older reader. I took a peek at the bookstore and was surprised (maybe a bit intimidated) by the girth of the volumes down the road.

Dune: Frank Herbert

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Herbert quickly swept me into Dune and the main two protagonists — Paul and Jessica — carried me through the book. These two characters travel to a different planet with a different culture, and their names emphasize their foreignness. The names increasingly highlight a feeling of non-belonging. The familiarity of the names clash with Paul and Jessica’s evolution of abilities and discoveries. Eventually, they receive different names which blatantly symbolizes their transition and assimilation.

I think of Dune and imagine the story flowing like sand shifting downward. When I started reading it, I completely skipped over the table of contents and missed the fact that there is a glossary. I do think there is value in being just as lost and confused as the characters when they immerse themselves in the alien culture of the Fremen. But that is not all that is weaved into these pages. There is a healthy dose of mysticism and politics. I love that even though Herbert makes it clear that Paul’s father will die, I still want him to pull through — somehow.

For science fiction’s supreme masterpiece, I don’t think Herbert missed a beat. If I could have read the book in its entirety over two days, I would have.

Reading the Harry Potter series for the first time: volume one

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This was actually my second time to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. When I first picked it up in high school, I was behind the curve and was too pretentious to allow myself to like a child’s book.

That’s certainly not the case now (I highly recommend the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman) and I did enjoy The Sorcerer’s Stone. I managed to finish it in a few days around a busy schedule and found myself caught in a few must-keep-reading moments — particularly toward the end.

However, the book wasn’t as captivating as I thought it would be. I attribute this to knowing the story and knowing something of the characters. Not having a feeling of discovery takes quite a bit out of the book.

Volume one of the series is also made for very young adults, and Rowling perfectly sets the stage to Harry’s world. Even though characters and feelings are made to appear simple, the circumstances, prejudices, and bullying are very real. It’s also great to know that studies have shown how reading Harry Potter makes people more tolerant.

Fiction can change the world, y’all.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Kurt Vonnegut

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I’m ashamed to admit that through my pre-college years, the Holocaust was a ghost. It was something I heard of, but never — not once — studied. My elementary teachers taught me the most by taking our class to a theater performance of The Diary of a Young Girl / The Diary of Anne Frank. But we can talk about Texas public school curriculum another time.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut mixes his own story within a story of a crazed man — Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut begins the novel in his own voice than moves to Pilgrim’s story. On several occasions, Vonnegut makes special cameos which create a sense of nonsense throughout the novel.

Pilgrim slides in and out of time, seamlessly falling into the past where he was a prisoner of war during WWII to middle age where he interacts with his overweight wife and good children. Just as easily, Pilgrim slips into the future and travels space with the Tralfamadorians, aliens that resemble characters from a science fiction novel Pilgrim read while institutionalized. Pilgrim’s character is by no means a steady source of information and neither is the author.

The reader knows the atrocities of war and of WWII. The insanity of Pilgrim mirrors the senselessness of war. When the book was published, in 1969, there was still no official death count for the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut writes that 135,000 people were killed. In 2010, an official report states that up to 25,000 people were killed.

I liked the book when I was younger because it was honest and brutal. Still now, I love it because it does not hide our aging flesh and our continual rot. It makes me think about the wars we can fight but how we do not feel war in our every day lives. It makes me wonder how the vanity of our culture has gained such an upper hand.

The Lacuna: Barbara Kingsolver

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I had no idea what to expect when a friend loaned me The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. But once I started, I could not put the book down.

Kingsolver takes you by the soft hand of a shy boy, who’s mother is not quite motherly and who watches the world as if he were not part of it. The lyricism of the narrator’s writing, his journals we are perusing, have a slow pace to them. It’s deceivingly slow as you move through his childhood and youth.

When the narrator returns to Mexico after escaping school, he takes up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The plot picks up when the reader is given this reference point. The two legendary artists and their large personalities draw out Solí, a name given to him by Kahlo. Politics of the time enter the novel and cause violent disruptions in what was the otherwise peaceful life of Solí. Weaved in from the second chapter is this mysterious V.B., for Violet Brown, who increases in importance as you move through the novel.

The boy turns into a man and adopts many names throughout his life depending on who is addressing him or where he is living. By doing this, Kingsolver sets the expectation that the narrator, or anyone, is defined more by those around him than himself. Kingsolver deftly demonstrates the power of words and the destructiveness of fear as Solí, now Shepard, faces he accusations of communism during the cold war. Through Shepard’s life, the reader sees how easily humans are pushed and prodded into their thoughts and actions.

Creating culture

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I try to say hello and goodbye to my office mates every day.

I’m not an especially chipper person, my true friends can attest to this, and certainly not at my best before 10 am, so why do I do it? It’s not a cry for attention, but rather an attempt to build a culture of caring at work.

My interest in office culture (and my interest in Asian American leaders) lead me to Delivering Happiness by Tony Hseih.

Hseih writes, “Studies have shown that engaged employees are more productive, and that the number of good friends an employee has at work is correlated with how engaged that employee is.” I appreciate Hseih’s devotion to a great company culture. He does not strive for this simply for productivity, but for happiness — his and his employees.

Everything matters. Do you keep your door open? Do you have a place for colleagues to sit in when they drop by to visit? Are you a good listener?