May was a good month for me – I read 11 books for an even 50, meaning I hit my yearly goal seven months early. I’m making good progress towards my stretch goal of 100 – I know my reading will slow in the last third of the year, so I’m trying to make the next few months count! Regardless, 2019 will shape up to be my biggest reading year since I made it to 100 back in 2012, so I’m already feeling pretty satisfied.
Here’s what I read this month…
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
A childhood favourite that is even better when revisited in adulthood – hard to believe! So many images from this book are indelible in my memory, and they are just as captivating all these years later. Philip Pullman’s writing has incredible emotional depth, from the soaring excitement of adventure to the profound sorrow he is unafraid to explore. Children can be difficult to write convincingly, but Lyra is very real: righteous, stubborn, brash, clever, ultimately innocent even in the face of atrocity. Much of this series is a fairly overt critique of organized religion (and the Catholic church especially), which went over my head as a child. The General Oblation Board’s experiments on children echoes the Holocaust, residential schools, and many other atrocities sanctioned by and committed in the name of the Church. This novel is my favourite in the series; it is complex, evocative, enduring, and affecting beyond words.
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
In the second book in the trilogy, our heroine Lyra and the newly-introduced Will spend a lot of time in Cittàgazze, a parallel world that serves as the transition between all other worlds. This book itself feels like a transition, undeniably the middle book in a trilogy: slow to start, heavy on action in the second half which leaves a lot of loose threads for the final instalment. Yet the strength of Pullman’s writing and ideas keeps it interesting. There’s a particular moment in this novel that will reduce me to tears even if I read it a hundred more times. Because we are now building to a battle that implicates all of humanity, the focus broadens: it is not merely Lyra’s story, or even Lyra and Will’s. The perspectives of the other characters are interesting and help flesh out the world(s) of the novels, but sometimes I was a bit sorry to leave Lyra and Will. I still think it’s a fantastic book, but it’s not quite as good as The Golden Compass.
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
The final book in the series does feel a bit scattered; there’s a lot at stake and a lot of threads to tie up. This one gets mixed reviews, in general, and while I understand why some might not find it satisfying, ultimately I think it’s a great ending. There is a lot of devastation in this book, all of it underscoring the pain of growing up as Lyra and Will, on the verge of adolescence, are confronted with some terrible truths. This one isn’t as story-driven as The Golden Compass, so it won’t light imaginations on fire in that way, but the worldbuilding is still fantastic, and the robustness of the characters is second to none. The ending is both heartbreaking and satisfying, and it hit all the right notes for me. In general, I will always have time for the His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s exciting and adventurous enough to appeal to a younger set, but it’s so rich in ideas that it simply transcends its YA designation. (Honestly, with all the anti-Church sentiment I’m surprised it was ever marketed that way, since it seems designed for an older, more politically-conscious reader.)
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
The first book in a new trilogy set in the same world as His Dark Materials, here we’re taken back twelve years. Our main character is a twelve-year-old boy named Malcolm, who becomes enchanted with baby Lyra, who has been taken to live in safety in a convent. Secretly, Malcolm makes weekend visits to Oxford scholar Hannah Relf, who is one of a handful of people who can read the truth-telling alethiometer. The grip of the Church begins to tighten, to the dismay of many in Oxford, Dr. Relf chief amongst them. It’s hard not to feel that this novel served primarily as the setup for something greater (with a lot of tantalizing hints dropped, to be sure), and I did miss eleven-year-old Lyra and her insolence. Malcolm was a fantastic, believable character, and Hannah is just inherently likeable. Though I’m wary of the sudden cultural obsession with reboots (most of which turn out to be very underwhelming), I’m tentatively looking forward to the second book in this series, which will apparently be about twenty-year-old Oxford student Lyra. (So much potential for greatness, so much potential for… devastating disappointment.)
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
Nominally about a Dominican maid who is prophesied to go back in time and save the planet from environmental disaster, this dense little book is actually less about a cliché time travel plot and more about ideas. In 130 pages, Rita Indiana explores gender, sexuality, colonialism, art, environmentalism, Santería, folklore, capitalism, and more. As someone with little knowledge of the cyperpunk genre Indiana is drawing on or of the intricacies of Dominican politics, I’m sure I missed a lot of the finer points of the novel. I found it a bit stomach-turning in places; there’s a lot of sexual violence and a real disgusting misogynist whose thoughts we are privy to. I don’t necessarily think that was gratuitous, but my tolerance for those types of things is growing thinner. The time travel plot was executed in a fresh and interesting way, and the writing was vibrant and exciting. It’s not always easy to follow, which is fine; I don’t mind a novel that makes me work or that leaves me with a lot to think about. I really liked the tone of the ending (and it certainly surprised me), I just wasn’t completely satisfied with this book. I often feel this way about shorter novels and novellas; perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I read them so quickly that I don’t feel I have enough time to truly get into the story and world and characters. I like a fast pace, especially in a book that’s straddling the thriller genre, but there was so little breathing room that I was left feeling like I didn’t quite get the characters’ motivations. This is a well-written (and well-translated) book with an interesting premise and promising execution, but this felt like another book that was primarily about ideas. That’s all well and good, but it’s hard to engage fully with such a variety of big ideas in only 130 pages. I just wanted more, and I was especially frustrated because the potential is so clearly there.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
The premise of this so-called “feminist dystopia” is interesting: three sisters are raised on an island by their highly abusive parents, separated from society due to the fact that men are literally toxic to women. Now, this is obviously a heavy-handed metaphor, but it becomes more interesting when we are led to question whether or not this is actually true or simply the parents’ excuse for controlling and abusing their daughters. I also liked the unhealthy, codependent, hostile relationship between the sisters – the dynamics between them were incredibly disturbing.
However, this is not a feminist dystopia. First of all, the world outside of the island is very poorly-developed, and dystopia surely requires intellectual engagement with some sort of wider society – its history, its social structures, its linkage to the real world. Secondly, this is by no means a feminist text. The differences between men and women are treated as inborn, an essentialist take that actually undermines feminist work. Men are portrayed as naturally strong and violent, while women are flimsy and not very self-sufficient. Of course, part of this is the line fed to the sisters by their parents, not necessarily a stance the book takes, but ultimately I didn’t find it did much to critique this. A lot is left deliberately vague or explained poorly, which I couldn’t help but feel was an attempt to make this book seem deeper or more intellectually strenuous than it really was. (My coworker, who recently read it too, had the same thought.) I also didn’t love the writing itself; though it was evocative and eerie, the prose simply feels labourious and a bit repetitive.
This book simply lacks clarity both in terms of narrative and message. Try as I might, I can’t wring anything particularly feminist from it, other than the very basic message that men as a social class are harmful to women as a social class. (So, patriarchy exists? Did I need to read a 266-page novel to tell me this?) Or, what, that the essence of womanhood is victimhood? Maybe this book is really about the effects of long-term isolation and abuse, in which case billing it as some sort of feminist narrative is just silly. Whatever it is, I found a few sparks of interesting ideas in an ultimately unsatisfying narrative.
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s penultimate novel tells the story of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam vet and former professor at a college for people with learning disabilities who is now dying of tuberculosis in prison after being accused of inciting a prison break that decimated a small town. My favourite Vonnegut novels are invariably the more realistic ones, and especially those about war. Hocus Pocus is quite ideologically dense, taking an obvious anti-war stance and creating clear linkages between the mutually-reinforcing systems of the military, prison, and higher education. This novel works through ideas of hereditariness and inevitability, with particular focus on various hereditary conditions as well as the idea that certain combinations of social class, race, and education predispose people to certain experiences. A deliberately essentialist take on complex sociological concepts, sure, but there’s a lot of truth in this. The theme that connects the entire novel is the Vietnam War – its futility and devastation, its ability to create successful, prolific killing machines, the way it has impacted life in the USA of the early 1990s. Eugene, a prominent soldier in Vietnam, is persistently haunted by one particular image of a severed head. Although he himself killed countless people, it is this particular horror that he cannot shake. Similarly, the book personalizes the idea of injustice – war, the prison industrial system – using Eugene as a stand-in for devastation that is on too large a scale to adequately comprehend. This is a bit harder to get through than a lot of Vonnegut’s work, but the (par-for-the-course) scathing critique of modern American capitalism is worth every page.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A young girl named Liesel Meminger arrives in a suburb of Munich in 1939 when her mother is unable to care for her. Soon after, her foster family takes in someone else – a young Jewish man named Max, who spends several years hiding in their basement. I first read this book almost ten years ago, in the summer of 2009, when I was fifteen. I had never before had such an intense emotional reaction to a book; I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for a good half hour after finishing it. I’ve been meaning to re-read it for years and years now, and I think the primary reason I’ve put it off is that I wasn’t sure if I could possibly enjoy it as much as I did then. Well, I didn’t. The narrative framing was not quite as seamless, and I couldn’t help but feel that some of the emotion comes simply out of obligation. Who wouldn’t cry at a book about the Holocaust, the devastation of war, the traumas children must bear? It’s not that the emotion isn’t real, it’s that it felt, at times, forced out of me.
There is lots to enjoy here, though. The tenderness of the relationships between Liesel and those around her is genuinely touching. Liesel herself is a great character: damaged and vulnerable but with such a delightful spark. Part of me wished that this novel had been slightly less apolitical (for example, the Hubermanns taking in Max is framed as simply an accident rather than a decision borne of a developed political consciousness), but I guess it’s not that sort of story. I just have a fierce desire for literature with a strong political stance, especially in this nightmarish day and age. I still like this book, but at nearly twenty-five I’m more clearly able to see its pretensions and considerable triteness even while enjoying certain aspects of it. I wouldn’t say this is a must-read, but if the premise interests you then give it a go.
The Public Image by Muriel Spark
A fiery novella about the failing marriage of a famous English actress living in Italy. Fame and unhappy marriages are two of my favourite literary themes, and the context of the Italian film industry makes me like this even more. The dark irony in actress Annabel’s obsession with her public image is rendered in a detached, precise way – even in the face of personal tragedy, Annabel’s first thought is how to control the narrative. Her relationships are either superficial or dysfunctional. Her marriage has been terrible for years, she detests her husband’s best friend, her own close friend is never actually present in the narrative, and her baby exists only as an excuse for her to get out of unpleasant social situations. There is quite a lot to unpack regarding gender roles, especially how integral an apparently loving marriage is to Annabel’s image and star power. Her less-successful husband is resentful of her recent accomplishments; it is suggested that he may feel emasculated by the fact that Annabel pays all the bills while he sits around occasionally producing a mediocre screenplay. At the beginning of the book, Annabel’s husband accuses her of faking her way through her career: she is not actually that talented, he alleges, she has simply fooled people into thinking she’s a good actress. Such is the case of her squeaky-clean, much-adored public image, which begins to unravel over the course of a few eventful days in Rome. A short book packed with interesting ideas about fame, the distinction between the public and private, authenticity, and married life in the 1960s.
The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence
Another painfully-detailed novel about the minutiae about midcentury housewifery – one of my favourite literary interests that many others are sure to find tedious. Here we meet Stacey MacAindra, a thirty-nine-year-old mother of four living in the suburbs of Vancouver. Her husband is a salesman (and, delightfully, he seems to exclusively sell products that you’d only find in modern-day MLMs), and she is bored and unsatisfied with the tedium of her domestic life. Not much actually happens here; it’s very internally-focused book that picks apart Stacey’s intolerable suburban ennui. This is done impeccably, with remarkable precision and sharpness. I love this kind of thing, and I thought this was great. If the concept of reading an entire book about a bored housewife does not appeal to you, then I’m sure you will not enjoy this.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
In the early 1800s, only two men practice magic in England: the elusive, paranoid Mr. Norell and his bold student Jonathan Strange. As Strange’s talents grow and their interests diverge, a great rift forms between them. Strange is particularly enchanted by the figure of the Raven King, said to have brought magic to England originally, while Norell fears and despises him. The worldbuilding in this novel is incredibly thorough (and, at 782 pages, it really ought to be), the story is interesting, and the characters are well-developed. The research into high society Georgian London and the Napoleonic Wars is apparent. However, this book definitely did not to be this long, and this is coming from someone who did not find The Goldfinch‘s length excessive. There are a lot of footnotes sprinkled into the book which feel, at times, gratuitous: some are extremely long, and some impart information that simply could have been integrated into the main text. All in all I got a feeling of self-congratulatory wittiness from some of the structure and tone, which I wasn’t crazy about. I think it’s a fun story and anyone who’s interested in urban fantasy or tales of magic would enjoy this – as long as you can commit to almost 800 pages!
I generally enjoyed my reading in May! This month I have quite a lot going on, including a vacation, so I’m not sure how much I’ll read. I’ve already purchased a few fluffy beach reads for my Kindle as well as a stack of CanLit from the thrift store, so I have a lot on deck for June!