Wednesday, April 17, 2019

#18 [2019/CBR11] "The Book of Dust" by Philip Pullman

Many, many years ago, my cousin recommended that I read The Golden Compass (1996) by Philip Pullman. As I began reading, I was skeptical. Every human has a little animal (called a daemon) that follows them around? I thought it was weird and wasn't sure I would get into it. But as I continued reading, I became attached to the characters and immersed in the story. Now that it's been well over a decade since I read The Golden Compass, I can remember very few details of the actual story, but I still clearly remember the emotional gut punch that hit me near the end of the book. I quickly read the next two books in His Dark Materials trilogy and enjoyed all of them.

So, when I saw that Pullman was writing a companion trilogy to His Dark Materials, I knew I would be reading them eventually. I was a little worried because I did not remember any of the details of the previous trilogy, but that didn't matter in the end. The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (2017) begins years before we meet Lyra, the protagonist in The Golden Compass. However, it does take place in the same world. The church is obsessed with power and tyrannically controls information and behavior. The church is often at odds with other intellectuals in their world. Every person has a daemon, an animal that is part of them and represents them. Daemons can change shape when the person is young, but settles into one form when one becomes grown.

Malcolm is an eleven-year-old boy that lives near Oxford. He helps his mother and father run The Trout, an inn near the river. He is hard-working, conscientious, and smart. He spends his free time rowing along the river on his canoe, which he calls La Belle Sauvage. One day he spies a nervous man drop something. Almost immediately after, the man is followed, captured, and dragged off by mysterious and imposing men in suits. Some days later, Malcolm learns that the man was found dead in the river.

The item that the man drops eventually leads Malcolm to Dr. Hannah Relf, a lovely woman, and a scholar with a special talent with the alethiometer--a rare instrument that can obliquely answer questions for those who know how to read it. The two become confidants and friends, and they work together to figure out what's happening. Hannah has already been secretly working for another group that has been organized to defy the church.

In addition, Malcolm does odd jobs for the nuns across the river. He is intrigued when they take in a baby girl named Lyra and begin to care for her. The rumor is that Lyra is Lord Asriel's child. Lord Asriel killed a man and is not allowed near her. Lyra's mother doesn't want her, and the nuns have stepped in. But there's a lot of interest in this small child. The nuns begin bulking up their security, men from the CCD (Consistorial Court of Discipline) barge in and try to take her away, and a scary man with a mangled hyena daemon seems to be after her.

Everything comes to a crisis when the nonstop rain creates a tremendous flood and Gerard Bonneville (the man with the hyena daemon) comes after Lyra. Malcolm, Alice (a sixteen-year-old girl who works at the inn), and Lyra just barely manage to escape in Malcolm's canoe. However, the flooding is so bad, they are carried downriver. Malcolm has the vague notion to bring Lyra to Lord Asriel in London where she will be safe. And so their adventures begin. Chased by Gerard Bonneville and the CCD, Alice and Malcolm try to keep Lyra safe, warm, and fed. They run into old friends, betrayers, witches, gyptians, a fairy, and others.

There were a lot of things I liked about this book. I now love the idea of every person having a daemon. They help express what the characters are feeling, and the connection between the daemon and their human adds an another layer to almost every interaction. I was happy to get back into Pullman's world. I also really liked Malcolm. He was honorable, resourceful, and kind. Alice was also a very interesting, and eventually likable, character. The mystery, danger, characters, and story-building that led up to the flood was all very good. I'm always a fan of adventure and survival stories.

However, I was a little disappointed near the end of the book. Malcolm's and Alice's struggles on the water started to feel a little random and repetitive. Too often, unexplained things were simply happening to them, and the coincidences were a little too much. Since I couldn't understand why these things were happening, I started to lose faith in the world that Pullman had created. So, Malcolm's canoe is dragged into some weird underworld. But if the current was so strong that it pulled them in and there was no escape, why were no other boats sucked down there? If for some reason, Malcolm's canoe was dragged down for a specific purpose, what was that purpose? There were a number of episodes like this, and I began to feel a little frustrated.

***SPOILERS*** In addition, I was disappointed in the ending. I wanted a little more closure. I wanted Malcolm to see his parents again, and I wanted to know more about what was happening with Hannah Relf. Instead, we find out how Lyra ended up in Oxford, which was interesting, but at this point I care more about Malcolm. I'm assuming that Pullman is setting everything up for the next two books, but as a stand-alone novel, I was a little disappointed. ***END SPOILERS***

Although The Book of Dust did not quite live up to my memories of The Golden Compass, I'm glad I read it, and I'm looking forward to Book 2.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

#17 [2019/CBR11] "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeannette Walls has been on my radar for about ten years, but I never quite got around to reading it. My book club chose it as their next read, which was finally the motivation I needed.

The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls' memoir of her childhood with her very difficult parents: Rex and Rose Mary Walls. Her father was a smart, gifted, difficult, truculent, alcoholic. Her mother was artistic, addicted to excitement, and probably had some mental health issues. Jeannette grew up with her older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and her youngest sister Maureen. When she was young, her family moved constantly throughout the desert southwest--often running away from bills or the police. She and her siblings spent a lot of time hungry, and their parents were alternately inspiring, negligent, exciting and cruel.

Rex, a very charismatic and manipulative man, promised to build his children an amazing glass castle as their permanent home. In the book it represents all the empty promises made to his family. Jeannette was the child who kept faith in her father for the longest time. Even as her younger brother became disillusioned, Jeannette continued to believe in her father until it was undeniable that she could not trust anything he said.

Eventually Jeannette's parents settle in a small, coal town in West Virginia, where Rex Walls had grown up. We meet Jeannette's grandmother and uncle and can see where Rex may have picked up his penchant for alcohol. From this point on, it seems that Jeannette and her siblings' lives get more chaotic. Rex falls further into his alcoholism, spending most of their very small amount of funds on himself. Rose Mary focuses on her art, neglecting her children. They live in a small cabin without running water and often without electricity that is literally falling apart around them. Jeannette is hounded at school for being dirty and unkempt. She struggles to get food to eat.

You might think that this is a harrowing story full of child abuse that is pure torture to read, but I really liked it. Despite everything Walls went through, she writes very clearly without pity or blame. She balances the horrible aspects of her parents along with the adventure, imagination, and love that made her who she is. There is no question that Jeannette made it through her childhood as a smart, fearless, kid who created an impressive life for herself.

Another aspect of this novel that made it more uplifting than I had expected was the relationship among the siblings--particularly between Jeannette and Brian. Perhaps because they could not count on their parents, the kids were especially loyal and protective of each other. Lori got in a brawl with her own grandmother over Brian. And they all pooled their money together in order to help get Lori out of the house and to New York after high school.

***SPOILER*** There were a number of scenes where I was shocked at the treatment of the children. These included having the kids (including an infant Maureen) ride for hours in the back of a U-Haul, her father's throwing Jeannette (over and over) in the hot springs to teach her to swim, her mother sneaking chocolate when her hungry kids had nothing to eat, and both of the parents' blase attitude toward potential sexual abuse. Yet perhaps the most heartbreaking scene was when Jeannette discovered that their father had stolen all their hard-earned "escape to New York-money" for drinking. ***END SPOILER***

This book was a fascinating page-turner that I read very quickly. At the same time, it is very emotional and compassionate. I'm very glad I finally read this one.

Monday, April 8, 2019

#16 [2019/CBR11] "Pride" by Ibi Zoboi

I had such high hopes for Pride (2018) by Ibi Zoboi. I first saw it on NPR's Best Books of 2018 List, and I was immediately intrigued. The description of Pride as a modern retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, set in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood, sounded fantastic. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books of all time, and one of the few books that I've actually reread. I have high standards for retellings and adaptations, but when they're done well, I love them. Two of my favorites are "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" Youtube series and Longbourn by Jo Baker.

Perhaps I began this book with unreasonably high expectations, but I left frustrated and disappointed. Zuri Benitez is the Elizabeth Bennet character. She lives in an apartment in Brooklyn with her parents and her four sisters: Janae, Marisol, Layla, and Kayla. She is of Dominican/Haitian descent, and has never really been outside of her neighborhood. She loves, and is fiercely protective of her family and neighborhood, though, and is scared of what gentrification will mean for it. So when the Darcy's, a rich, black family, moves into the newly renovated mansion across the street, she takes an immediate dislike to all of them.

Janae is just back from Syracuse University in New York and is very excited about her expanded world. Janae immediately hits it off with the elder Darcy brother, Ainsley, while Zuri has awkward moments with Darius, the younger brother. Zuri's two youngest sisters, Layla and Kayla, flirt as much as their baby teenage selves can handle. Marisol, instead of being obsessed with music and God, is obsessed with money and making money--a slight change that I found clever.

One of my main problems with this book, is that besides the number and names of some of the characters, I couldn't see why it was pretending to be a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is smart, funny, and witty. She is comfortable wherever she goes and quietly stands up to those around her with confidence. Zuri Benitiez is scared and defensive. Her main focus the summer before her senior year of high school is on writing her college application essay to Howard University. Instead of thoughtful, witty banter, Zuri rolls her eyes, and when she's really upset, she rolls her eyes hard. Part of my problem was that I didn't realize this was a young adult book. I expected the characters to be older and caring about things other than SAT's and college essays.

However, the other problem was that the characters and their issues did not feel developed. I've read young adult books that tear my heart out, but I couldn't feel much for anyone in this book. Zuri's parents are barely shadow characters. There is a Colin character who gets together with Zuri's friend, Charlize. The only drama is that Zuri doesn't really like Colin. Charlize seems to like Colin and has her own prospects, with her own job and a basketball scholarship to Duke. The original really plays up the obnoxiousness of Colin, the tension between Elizabeth and her mother when she refuses his proposal, and Elizabeth's horror that Charlotte would be forced to marry someone so ridiculous because her circumstances require it for stability.

The relationship between Zuri and Darius was also not very satisfying. Zuri was immediately and rudely defensive with Darius. It was hard to see what Darius saw in her. In addition, there wasn't much development of their relationship. They hate each other, suddenly they're making out, and then Zuri's mad at him again. Darius doesn't make any grand, secret gestures (he's really too young for that anyway). There is a character named Warren who plays the Mr. Wickham character, but it does not pack the same punch.

Zoboi brought up some interesting themes, including gentrification, racism, and class issues, but she didn't address these issues in a full, satisfying way. Again, Zuri would act defensive and angry at the rich, mostly white people moving into and changing her neighborhood. When her family is forced out of their apartment, it could have been a very meaningful moment, but it wasn't. I thought the best writing in the book was the poetry that Zuri writes in spots throughout the book.

All in all, I think this might have been a better book if Zoboi had not stamped this story onto a Pride and Prejudice template and, instead, really dug into the issues of gentrification and class and how they affected her family.

#15 [2019/CBR11] "Our Bodies, Ourselves" by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

The last book I read from my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 was Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves first came about in the late 1960s. Since then numerous editions and expansions have been written, with the latest edition published in 2011. The latest version is an 825 text book on women's health and sexuality in the United States. Because of the length and subject, I bought this book months ago and read it in small chunks so I wouldn't tire of it.

When I first noticed Our Bodies, Ourselves on the list of books I had decided to read, I wasn't too excited. Text books aren't always thrilling, and I did not know it had been rewritten throughout the years. I thought I'd be reading a health text from the 1970s. Fortunately, I was wrong on a number of points. 

Although I can't necessarily recommend picking up this book and reading it cover to cover, I really admire what the authors are doing with this project. This is a book written for women, by women. It covers topics including: puberty, child birth, birth control, abortion, menopause, relationships, violence against women, sexually transmitted infections, health care, as well as common diseases and cancers. The book is written in a non-judgmental, informative style that feels inclusive. Small blurbs from women describing their varying experiences make the book feel more personal. These blurbs show the wide array of what women have encountered and their responses. The idea is that knowledge is power, and the more women know about their health and bodies, the better off they will be. 

Although this book is defiantly feminist and progressive, it seeks to inform choices rather than dictate. Each type of birth control described clearly states how effective it is (both when used correctly and real world numbers), side effects, positives, and negatives. Then the choice is left up to you depending on your health, your needs, and your personal priorities. I have to admit that I thought I was pretty well-informed and would not learn much from this book. However, even the first chapter describing the anatomy of women's sex organs was sometimes illuminating. In addition, it was nice to get some concrete, side-by-side numbers on the newer birth control options. 

With a book covering this vast amount of information, it is, by necessity, pretty general. The book quite often includes links, websites, and other places to go for more help and information. Occasionally, there would be a sidebar describing efforts to make informative books and pamphlets for women in different countries around the world--written and presented by women in those countries. The book felt like a very unifying project that seeks to help women get the most out of their lives.

I can see Our Bodies, Ourselves being a helpful reference book to keep on your shelf as a clear, informative guide when questions pop up regarding health and sexuality. If all teenage girls could somehow know all the information in this book, I think women, on the whole, would be so much better off.

Finally, I have to admit that I have decided to read only 49 out of the 50 books before I turn 40. I began reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir with very good intentions. Beauvoir is a remarkable, impressive woman. However, about thirty pages into it, I realized I had another 830 very dense pages to go, and I just couldn't do it. It was such a relief to give up on it, and now I'm back to reading whatever I want.

Monday, April 1, 2019

#14 [2019/CBR11] "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) by Flannery O'Connor was one of the last books on my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List. I previously knew neither the author nor the book, so I wasn't sure what to expect. And to be honest, I'm not exactly sure what to think now that I'm done. I'm impressed by O'Connor's writing, disturbed by the content, disturbed by the pervasive racism, and once again impressed that I had such a visceral reaction to her stories.

The book is comprised of ten short stories that primarily take place in the South in the mid-20th Century. A couple of them reference World War II but I did not notice any specific dates. The stories are usually centered around a family, a couple, or a mother and her daughter and their interactions with their help, their neighbors, and visitors. Of the ten stories in this book, four of them ended with people dying (mostly tragically), and four had someone in the story betraying another in a way that made me feel sick to my stomach. Finishing this book became a relatively stressful experience.

O'Connor is a talented writer. Her characters felt real and well-rounded with very little description. When you throw in the disturbing conclusion to many of her stories, they become very memorable. Perhaps what also bothered me is that O'Connor did not give much reasoning for the evil characters' actions or any judgment of their actions. It seemed a pretty bleak view of the world.

I read that Flannery O'Connor was a Roman Catholic and her religion influenced her writing. There were certainly religious characters and scenes in her books, including priests, a Bible salesman, a religious revival, and a religious school. Some of her stories seemed to bring up religious questions. However, she didn't seem to be promoting religion through her stories. In fact, I learned almost nothing about the author's point of view while reading her book. I could not tell if she was commenting on something she didn't like in society or approved of it. There is a heavy amount of racism throughout the book, which is surely an accurate representation of the time and place, but I couldn't tell what she thought about it.

So, in the end, I am again left not knowing what to think about this book. I wanted some kind of catharsis or explanation after one or another horrible thing happens. But O'Connor never gives it to us. There is no final judgment, and we usually don't find out what happens to the transgressors or the victims. It was frustrating, but it's also part of what made her stories so memorable.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

#13 [2019/CBR11] "99 Percent Mine" by Sally Thorne

I'm pretty sure I discovered The Hating Game here on Cannonball. I wasn't expecting too much because hate-to-love romances aren't my favorite. Fortunately, it was the biggest and best surprise of the year for me. I was thoroughly entertained and loved reading it. So when I saw that Sally Thorne's second book, 99 Percent Mine (2019) was out, I knew I would read it and I was eager to get to it. In the end, I enjoyed Thorne's latest, and it had some good moments, but it didn't work nearly as well for me as The Hating Game.

Darcy is a young woman and currently a bartender at a dive bar. The most important people in her life are: Jamie, her twin brother; Tom, their childhood friend and "the perfect man"; Truly, her best friend; and Darcy's recently deceased grandmother. When we meet Darcy, she is a genuine mess. Surviving on alcohol and sugar, she's ignoring her heart condition, and avoiding anything that she cares about. She used to be an award-winning photographer, but she gave it up after showing up for a wedding job late and hungover. She had drunk too much the night before, after she discovered that Tom, her childhood friend and man she'd always loved, was engaged to someone else. Her go-to problem-solving skill is running away.

Darcy recently got in a raging fight with her twin Jamie when she rashly rejected an offer to develop her grandmother's property and the two haven't been talking. Darcy's grandmother left her home to Darcy and Jamie, asking them to restore it and sell it. Tom shows up at the house as the general contractor for the rebuild. With the two stuck together, and Tom recently single, they cannot deny their attraction--although they take their damn time about it.

Tom is a giant of a man and seemingly perfect in every way. He is tall, strong, loyal, kind, and reliable. When a childhood Tom and his single mother moved next door to Darcy's family, he immediately became a part of the family and a peacekeeper between the bickering siblings. Darcy and Tom loved each other back then, but nothing came of it. Then Tom got engaged, even though he still loved Darcy, and neither one did anything about it. And now they're living and working together and still doing nothing about their obvious love for each other.

I had a number of problems with this book. Most importantly, I couldn't understand what was keeping these characters apart. A misunderstanding? The fear of Jamie's anger? It wasn't enough. I couldn't understand how Darcy could literally throw herself at Tom and Tom (really both of them) could act so insanely possessive and jealous and not get together. Whether Tom and Darcy were going to hook up or awkwardly avoid each other felt more random than anything else. At the end of the book, they tell each other in what way the other one loves them. Apparently they knew each other's deepest feelings all along, so seriously, what was keeping them apart?

Sometimes the writing felt a little sloppy and the story unrealistic, which took me out of the fantasy. Why would Darcy lift a heavy box of tile or drag a keg around on the floor when there are people to help her and she knows what it will do to her? Isn't Darcy an adult? Can she seriously not go to the doctor by herself? Why would Tom do an underwear photo shoot when he's just been told there's an emergency with a delivery? Wouldn't he at least check on it first? Why was the photo shoot suddenly an emergency? They didn't even have a model two minutes before and suddenly it has to be done immediately?

Finally, I could not understand Jamie or Jamie and Darcy's relationship. He's straight-up emotionally abusive to Darcy, telling her that she will never amount to anything and she could never be good enough for Tom. Why would he be so cruel? Is this all because Jamie's afraid of losing his friend if Tom becomes interested in his sister? That doesn't even make sense, unless Darcy and Jamie's relationship is so dysfunctional that they cannot share anything. Jamie and Tom don't seem particularly close anyway, and Tom marrying into the family would only keep them closer. So, Darcy and Jamie were both exceedingly unlikable at times. I couldn't understand Jamie's motivation for aggressively keeping Darcy and Tom apart, and I couldn't understand why Darcy and Tom were ever apart in the first place.

That all being said, there was still some good tension, and I did read the book quickly. I hope that Thorne's next one works better for me.

#12 [2019/CBR11] "Lives of Girls and Women" by Alice Munro

Lives of Girls and Women (1971) by Alice Munro is yet another book that I picked up because it was on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. Winner of the Nobel Prize for fiction, Lives of Girls and Women was written eight years before I was born. It takes place in rural Canada and tells the coming-of-age story of Del Jordan. This book is fiction, but the story felt semi-autobiographical and personal. I assume it must have been based on Munro's experiences, but being unfamiliar with her life and work, I cannot be sure.

Each chapter of this book is a discrete story from Del's perspective as she matures from a young girl through her teenage years. Munro focuses on the detail in the specific stories rather than the comprehensive whole. The chapters describe a small number of incidents that clearly had a strong impact on Del's life.

The first chapter sets the scene when Del's odd, hermit-like neighbor, "Uncle" Benny, finds a bride in an advertisement in the newspaper. He brings her home, along with the woman's toddler child. His new wife is difficult, irritable, and violent. She disappears one day, and when Benny hears from her, he borrows Del's father's car to find the child (who is being abused) and bring her home. However, not knowing the city or how to read a map, he gets lost and just barely makes it home--never seeing the woman or child again.

One of the major themes of this book was Del's struggle with the provincial nature of the town and her own hopes and dreams. Del is remarkably intelligent, memorizing large swaths of her mother's Encyclopedia set as a child. Yet the town frowned on people who thought too much of themselves or reached above their station. Del had the example of her mother: an intelligent, independent woman who often defied the town's expectations. But then she had the influence of the rest of her small society and their judgment of her mother. Del wanted to fit in and sometimes struggled with her own ambitions as well as her contradictory feelings toward her mother.

Another major theme was Del's sexual awakening. From Del's first crush, to her first sexual experience, to her almost giving up everything for her first love, Del's stories felt real. Del basically stopped studying and lost much of her ambition because of her infatuation with her boyfriend, Garnet. Her mother looked on hopelessly, and it made me wonder if the same thing had happened to her. Munro never explains why Del's mother ended up stuck in a small Canadian town with two kids when she so obviously would have fit in better somewhere else.

On the whole, I was impressed by this book. The stories of Del's life are told in a clear, intricate, honest manner that felt real.