J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

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As the Wizarding World Book Club has opened there’s no way but reread the Harry Potter series once again!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

“It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something.”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a amazingly well written debut novel. Albeit J. K. Rowling has herself criticized her use of adverbs etc. it is still an admirable exercise in plot building, character creation and foreshadowing. Not least because these elements often set the foundation for the entire seven book series. Rowling must have had her story very well planned indeed.

The first part of the series presents us with the HP universe and its main characters and main sub characters. There’s a plenty! It is an entire world on its own, with its hierarchies, policies and intrigues – whether or not Harry Potter is included in them or not. Despite the vast cast, Rowling keeps the strings in her hands.

She has also created a very concrete universe in a sense that it is inhabited by various magical creatures, there are unique devices and customs and surroundings that literally ooze magic atmosphere. All these details bring the story to life. They have also inspired numerous people in arts and crafts to recreate the HP world in real life .

“We could all have been killed – or worse, expelled.”

Philosopher’s Stone is before anything else a middle grade adventure story flavoured with magic. Its eleven-year-old MCs are true to their age, which is not nearly as self-evident as one might think. It is not easy to create a genuine child character of a certain age. Rowling has managed this very well. It is interesting to compare Harry, Ron and Hermione of the first book to some other well-known child characters of the same age group: Flavia de Luce by Alan Bradley, Max Lightwood by Cassandra Clare, the Famous Five by Enid Blyton.

Quite in unison with the old tradition of MG books, Rowling’s characters live in a world where adults are little less than a nuisance at best and downright dangerous at worst. There are a few semi-trusted mentors among adults, but mostly the children fight their battles on their own and submerge as stronger and more confident than before their ordeals. This is of course the recipe for success in MG and YA books, because an introduction of wise and helpful adults would instantly turn them into the icky instructional books with a lesson to learn for their readers…

Magic in the series is very far from what real world magic among wicca e.g. would be. Yet, J. K. Rowling has clearly done her homework in this area too. She uses many plants traditionally considered to have magical properties, like mandrake, or well-known concepts from folklore, like bezoar. Even the core of the story – the philosopher’s stone and its inventor Nicholas Flamel – are based on a real historical person. Many of her magical creatures are based on old legends and myths and her spells in twisted Latin are often word plays. Avada kedavra originates, according to Rowling, from abracadabra in Aramaic, an ancient spell meaning “let the thing be destroyed”. It is somewhat ironic that the Wikipedia tells it to mean “I create as I speak” or “I create like the word”.

Susan

Quotes from the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone:

My house edition:

The entire series:

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Andrew Blake: The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter

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Kid-Lit in a Globalised World

Harry Potter – the boy who lived and will live on – perhaps for centuries? On the 26th June 2017 it’s 20 years since the first HP book Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone) saw daylight. Since then the world has seen a tremendous wave of potterisms – not least as new words in all the 79 languages the books have been translated into. Even if you’ve never read a word from the books or seen any of the movies, you better understand what are dementors, what means apparate and disapparate and who Umbridge is, or you’re in trouble.

Andreq Blake: Harry Potter

Author: Andrew Blake
Publisher: Vastapaino 2004, Finland (the Finnish edition)
Category: Non-fiction
Original language: English
Rating: 4/5

Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 12: A book about politics and politicians.

Andrew Blake went on to analyse the Harry Potter phenomenon as early as 2002 (original edition), only five years after the first HP book was published. Harry Potter had already then became an international best-seller. Blake sees Harry Potter as a right-on-time answer to the call of the 1990’s new educational politics in the UK.

Harry Potters have certainly been hailed as a saviour of the reading hobby in many countries. Even more so, they have saved numerous publishing companies from hardship or downright extinction. For the British publishing house Bloomsbury, the series has been a goldmine. For the 20th anniversary of the series, Bloomsbury has put together an appropriate celebration with – of course – new editions of the HP books.

Andrew Blake gives credit to the skillful marketing of Harry Potter series. Its original success was largely created by word-of-mouth, but as it started to fly, Bloomsbury and J. K. Rowling have held the reigns with an expert touch. At the time of the publishing of Blake’s book, the story of Harry Potter was just in the beginning. Now, after 20 years it doesn’t take much of a wizard to say that it has taken more than clever marketing and suitable UK educational politics to move the series around the world in a tsunami fashion.

Even Blake recognizes some reasons behind the inevitable international success of the series, but he didn’t have the entire series to analyse at the time he wrote the book. Had it been so, he might have had more profound views on the themes and characters of the series.

Rowling has combined in unprecedented way the eternal battle of the good and bad with modern values of equality and tolerance and based her story on ancient myths we all carry in our cultural history and (even unconsciously) recognize and feel familiar with while reading about the adventures and challenges of Harry, Hermione and Ron.

Rowling has created an enigmatic main character, but not one fighting his battles alone – the three friends are a team and above all, they share the values of friendship. It is baffling how little there is romance in Harry Potter compared with many other YA fantasy series, but it has clearly been a well-thought out choice. Even when the characters reach their teens, the budding romances are always very clearly subplot and British in their style – moderate and understated. This keeps the series suitable for all ages till the very end and also keeps the much fretted boy readers included (who could be lost with even a hint of a categorization towards romantic fiction). J. K. Rowling has thus also skilfully avoided the pitfall of triangle dramas (the trope of this kind of trios).

In its core HP series is surprisingly relatable to any reader. Take away the magical elements of the story and what do you have? Young people trying to find their way in the world that challenges them and their beliefs and values relentlessly – who would not relate to that? The series presents all the frustrations of the modern world from politics to media practices, from the school system to infinite need of the human race to create ways to exploit others.

But fantasy is not just an icing on the cake in Rowling’s universe. She has weaved it into the story in a way any author would envy. It is a whole, living universe of her making, which is fully evident in the way it allows spin-offs to be born and reveals a carefully though-out backstory. She uses her magical universe to create tension, suspense and humour. Even the way her characters use magic tell readers about the character’s nature and intentions.

It would be interesting to read what Andrew Blake would say about the Harry Potter phenomenon now, 20 years later.

Susan

The beginning of it all:

And the whole story:

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A Travel Guide to the Medieval Finland

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Time travel is popular in fiction, but much more interesting in non-fiction. The travel guide to the medieval Finland brings bygone ages alive with interesting little details about the everyday lives of people, who lived 600 years ago in the borders of the civilized world.

The Eastland or Österland as it was called in the kingdom of Sweden covered less than half of the area nowadays known as Finland. It was an unknown land to many Europeans, but not that remote from the customs of the Central Europe as one might imagine.

Matkaopas keskiajan Suomeen

Author: Ilari Aalto & Elina Helkala
Publisher: Atena Kustannus Oy 2015, Finland
Category: Non-fiction
Original language: Finnish
Rating: 5/5

Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 8: A book about Finnish history.

Ilari Aalto & Elina Helkala have created a wonderful guide to the Finnish history in a period when the country took its form as part of Sweden and existed first time as a part of a nation. This guide is just as enthralling as any good guide book to a destination of one’s preferences: interesting, profound, entertaining and fact filled.

Knights, priests and kings were familiar to many Finns, although in the 14th century the northern parts of the country were mostly inhabited by nomadic hunter pagans, who didn’t belong to any kingdom. The towns were small, but they had commercial rights and exported and imported goods from many countries. Southern ideas made their way up north in the form of religion, fashion and spices.

Catholic church came to Finland in the 12th century, but the old beliefs and pagan faith remained mixed with the new religion for a long time and in some ways up to this day, too. Food was expensive but workers cheap and after a long work day, people might go for a drink of beer to a nearby Inn and play a board game.

Finland was perhaps spartan, but quite a good place for common folks. Contrary to many other European countries, 95% of the farmers owned their own land. This made the Finnish countryside people independent. Yet, there were few schools and most of the people were illiterate. The culture was nowhere near as cultivated as in the Mediterranean countries of that period, which is easy to see, if you compare the paintings in the Finnish churches of the time to those in Italian churches, for example.

There might have been some truth in the writings of Bartholomeus Anglicus de Glanville: De proprietatibus rerum in the beginning of the 13th century:

”Winland (Finland) is a country connected to the Norwegian mountains on their east side and spreading out along the shores of the Sea; it is not very prosperous, unless one takes account of grass and forest. The people are brutal, uncivilized and cruel, using magic.”

Susan

There is a similar guide to the Medieval England:

And an intriguing fiction novel from the same author from the viewpoint of a medieval person travelling in time to the future:

December 1348. With the country in the grip of the Black Death, brothers John and William fear that they will shortly die and go to Hell. But as the end draws near, they are given an unexpected choice: either to go home and spend their last six days in their familiar world, or to search for salvation across the forthcoming centuries – living each one of their remaining days ninety-nine years after the last.

John and William choose the future and find themselves in 1447, ignorant of almost everything going on around them. The year 1546 brings no more comfort, and 1645 challenges them still further. It is not just that technology is changing: things they have taken for granted all their lives prove to be short-lived.

As they find themselves in stranger and stranger times, the reader travels with them, seeing the world through their eyes as it shifts through disease, progress, enlightenment and war. But their time is running out – can they do something to redeem themselves before the six days are up?

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Stefano Mancuso & Alessandra Viola: Brilliant Green. The Surprising History and Science of Plan Intelligence

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What is intelligence? Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola ask in Brilliant Green what is intelligence of plants. How do we define intelligence, thinking, communication and being alive? Plants have long been consider a lower form of life. They been seen as living things, but without conscience, senses and certainly lacking intelligence. Mancuso and Viola question this perception brilliantly and open one’s eyes to the evidence provided by the recent studies showing the amazing capabilities plants have.

Stefano Mancuso: Intelligence of Plants

Author: Stefano Mancuso & Alessandra Viola
Publisher: Aula & co 2017, Finland (the Finnish edition)
Category: Non-fiction
Original language: Italian
Rating: 5/5

Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 13: “Your story” book.

What can we learn from plants?

99% of the biomass of the earth consists of plants. Our green friends are present in all conditions and areas on the globe. We also use them for multiple purposes: as food, for building, for energy and medicine. It is safe to say we couldn’t survive without plants. They provide us with the single most important element to our existence: oxygen.

Yet we very seldom consider them more than a fixture of our surroundings or the veggies on our plate.

But what if we take a look at how plants deal with their surroundings and problems they are faced with every day? One might think there is no dealing at all, as plants appear immobile and mute. But just as any other living organism, they have to fight for their survival, and in order to succeed they have to gain information from their surroundings and the potential threats in there and to decide on how to act based on the information they have.

Mancuso and Viola state, that if intelligence is defined as an ability to solve problems, then plants must be geniuses. They feel, sleep, communicate, learn and recognize their relatives. In addition to the five senses of us humans, they have a bunch of senses particular to them alone.

But the way plants go about all this is so different from what we are used to seeing in humans and other mammals, that it is very difficult for us to understand them. Many discoveries on the abilities of the plants have been made decades, even centuries ago, but have remained unrecognized by the scientific community either because they have not suited to the current scientific perception of the world or they have not been considered significant – after all, it’s just plants.

However, plants have been around far longer than any other living creatures and developed into organisms that function in a decisively different way from mammals. Instead of one separate organ or member construction (brains, feet, heart etc.) their entire body functions as one large interacting organism, with e.g. computational structures built into the tips of the roots that can sense the consistence of the ground or communicate chemically with other plants. Thus they don’t suffer too much even if they lose one part of their body to a predator.

Considering the recent advances in the understanding of the capabilities of animals and how these discoveries have affected their treatment, it is interesting to see how the increasing understanding of the vegetable world will affect our perception of it and the way we all cohabit our home planet.

The more we learn about animals and plants, the clearer it is we are all in this together.

Susan

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Varpu Lindström: Letters from an Immigrant Teenager

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Being an immigrant is often more or less of a hassle. You have to accustom to a foreign culture and language, which might be very different from the one you originate from. For an adult immigrant, there are several ways to learn the ropes of the new culture and life experience helps to put things into perspective. If you immigrate as a small child, you don’t have too many preconceived ideas of how things should be and it’s relatively easy to slip in to the new ways.

But what about immigrating as a teenager? The age when everything is chaotic and difficult anyway. When it is more important than life itself to belong to the right group. Varpu Lindström has firsthand experience of immigrating as a teenager and surviving it – in a time before internet and social media, and having very little information about her new home country before she actually moved there.

Varpu Lindström: Letters from an Immigrant Teenager

Author: Varpu Lindström
Publisher: Aspacia Books 2012, Canada
Category: Non-fiction
Original language: English & Finnish
Rating: 5/5

Helmet Reading Challenge 2017, number 36: A biography or memoir.

Varpu Lindström immigrated with her parents from Finland to Canada in 1963. It was a full-blown crisis for her: she didn’t want to move and leave her friends behind, she didn’t speak English or French and she lost her status as a clever student because the difficulties with the new language.

At the time, the North American culture was not yet as familiar in Finland as it is today. There were just a few American television series running and life in general was concentrated in your immediate surroundings in a whole different way than it is nowadays, when my Finnish speaking 9-year-old plays internet games in English with Taiwanese co-players, even though she has only studied German so far at the school.

In Varpu’s life the move across the Atlantic meant a significant change in her lifestyle. She missed her friends, especially Kaisa, with whom she exchanged letters regularly. Kaisa kept all the letters and when the two friends met face-to-face years later, she reminded Varpu about their letter exchange. Lindström’s book: Letters from an Immigrant Teenager was born out of those letters.

The book contains Varpu Lindström’s letters during the two first years in Canada, in Finnish and as an English translation. The first letters describe the miserable feelings of a girl thrown into a completely different culture and not knowing the language. First Varpu asks Kaisa to report to her all the news from the school back home and what her old friends are up to.

But during the months to come, it is easy to see how Varpu is getting more and more familiar with her new home. She learns English, makes friends, has a boyfriend and enjoys the new possibilities that a life in Canada gives her. At the same rate as she becomes happier in her new home, her Finnish language deteriorates; turns into Finglish, which she also notices herself and comments in the letters.

The “umbilical cord” to the old home country is finally cut quite brutally as the situation in Canada escalates – a promised vacation trip to Finland is postponed and Varpu has a breakdown because of the disappointment. She is forced to cut back her communications with the old friends in Finland. This feels like a shock treatment, but – behold – it proves successful. Her last letter in this collection to her friend Kaisa is very different from the previous ones. It has a strong sense of investing in her future life in Canada, with the people that are close to her there, instead of the constant homesickness and longing present in the letters from the time when she had just moved there.

It was fascinating to read about Varpu Lindström’s experiences. The onset of her immigration, with the opposition, yearning for Finland and her sadness and then witnessing her attitude to gradually change – still keeping the “Finland is better” attitude so familiar with immigrants – was intriguing to read.

I’ve lived outside Finland over 9 years. I moved abroad as an adult and it was looking forward the change and new experiences. It was a very different situation from Varpu’s, who was basically forced to move, because of the lifelong dream of her father. Yet, the challenges she faced were very similar to mine and probably to the most other immigrants too. Problems with language, culture, customs and finding your own place in the society. And the solutions alike – integrating into the society, gradually and by gaining knowledge of the new surroundings. Not alone, but together with the locals.

Susan

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