Monthly Archives: May 2020

His Dark Materials Novellas

I never bothered to read any of the novellas Philip Pullman wrote that tie in to the His Dark Materials series. But after re-reading the series and watching the HBO show, I felt some interest.

Once Upon a Time in the North is the story of how Lee Scoresby met Iorek Byrnison and their first adventure together. Newly in possession of his balloon, Scoresby finds himself in an isolated arctic town and in the thick of a deadly fight. Always one to help the underdogs, Scoresby agrees to help a ship’s captain defy the oil magnate controlling the town and load his detained cargo. But it’s gonna take more than Scoresby and his gun to get the ship underway.

This was a quick little read that filled in some of the history Pullman hints at in the series. And it’s a fun way to dip back in to Pullman’s world without going all the way back through the series.

In Lyra’s Oxford, Lyra has returned from her adventures and has taken up studies at St. Sophia’s. When a witch’s dæmon comes to her for help, Lyra can’t keep from getting involved. But her trusting innocence may yet be her undoing.

This story was a little less interesting, as it didn’t tie in to the history of the series but was more a little snapshot at Lyra’s life after the North. But it was only 50 pages, so worth reading if you’ve got a hankering for just a little bit more of Lyra’s story.

This is What America Looks Like

Do you ever just get tired of hearing the same hate spewed by people? I do, which is why when I saw this biography by Ilhan Omar, with a sort of provocative title, This is What America Looks Like, I snagged it.

If the name is familiar, it’s probably because of publicity Omar got for being in opposition to President Donald Trump. But before she was a congresswoman standing up for those who didn’t have a voice in government, she’d experienced first hand what it was like to live without a voice.

Omar grew up in Somalia until war destroyed her home and she fled with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya. After several years there, they finally got approval to relocate to America, where they became citizens and struggled to fit in. Always outspoken and always a fighter, Omar grew to become a force to be reckoned with, creating her identity on her own terms and working tirelessly to build up those around her.

While I can’t say I’m up-to-date on Omar’s legislation, her biography reads very plainly. Not once did I feel like I was being persuaded or indoctrinated, as some would expect. She simply writes about how her life unfolded, the struggles she faced and how she overcame them, and how those struggles shaped her perception of what’s needed in our country. She brings a different perspective to the table, and I can’t see how that is a bad thing. Our country is ever-changing in demographics, it makes sense that everyone should have the chance to be represented by someone who understands their situations. It makes sense that government should be an accurate representation of what our country looks like.

While she may seem a little like an idealist, if nothing else this is a memoir of hard work and hope, and those are things that never go out of style.

Fight Club

First off, I expected a lot more fighting. And yes, I knew that the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. That’s why it’s not actually the main story. But still.

This was my first time reading Chuck Palahniuk and while it was well written, it may be that he’s not my style.

The main character, whose name you never catch, has a chance meeting with Tyler Durden, a charismatic young man with a devil may care attitude. Almost on accident, they create Fight Club. But soon the main character sees that Tyler is up to more than just underground boxing, and when he figures it all out, it’s mind blowing.

I’ve gotta admit, when I started the book, I wasn’t really keen. It seemed like just another book about someone’s train wreck life, featuring a lot of friends who, frankly, seem like they are probably on drugs. It reminded me of a lot of the boxy movies I’ve seen. In fact, it wasn’t until most of the way through, when everything fell into place, that I realized it’s a much better story and book than I thought.

That said, the writing was good, and a little unique. Palahniuk uses certain kinds of repetition to give the reader a look into the mind of his main character, a look at the burn out and mind-numbing monotony that pushes him to extremes. Overall, it was a little strange, and not at all what I would have expected.

Lord of the Flies

Being homeschooled means I missed quite a few classic required reads, so now I’m taking some time to try to catch up. Because when you find it for 10 cents, why not?

Let me just say, I went into William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies with little knowledge of what it was about, other than kids on a island. Let me tell you, it was wild and I wasn’t really prepared for it.

The book starts right in, giving the reader little to no context for what’s going on. You have to piece it together as you go. A plane full of boys crashes on a deserted island, and the boys must figure out how to survive. They elect Ralph as their leader and things go well for a while. But when Jack, Ralphs only real rival, decides he doesn’t like Ralph’s leadership style, the groups splits up and things begin to breakdown.

By the time the boys are finally rescued, they’ve survived a series of traumatic events, leaving them all changed.

I was confused at first, trying to figure out the context for the story. It wasn’t apparent, right off, whether the plane crashed or just dumped them. Also relatively unclear was the time the book was set in. These aren’t huge things, but they help orient the reader.

However, once the story got going, it moved quickly. Ralph’s character represents logic and rationality and Jack’s character is very much impulse and feelings, rather a classic case of super-ego and id, without an ego to balance them. In the end, it’s a fight between Ralph, who wants to be rescued, and Jack, who is focused on the joys of wild abandon and no consequences.

I wasn’t prepared for several of the plot twists, though I see how the author uses them to explore what makes a man.

All in all, it was a quick, enjoyable read, and I definitely see how you could get a lot of discussion out of it.

The Testaments

When I first heard that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I was skeptical. Sometimes, when so much time has passed, it’s better to just let the story rest. But now that I’ve read it (late to the party, but I was late to the Handmaid’s Tale party, too, so…), I actually enjoyed it.

Set 15 years later, the Testaments isn’t quite a continuation of the story, but rather a continuation of the history, told from three perspectives. Agnes grew up in Gilead, unaware of any other way of life. She struggles against the decisions made for her, even as she struggles to maintain the proper attitude and respect. Daisy grew up in Canada, learning about the oppressive government in Gilead, but when her life is turned upside down, she sees the only course of action is working directly against Gilead. Aunt Lydia was involved in the founding of Gilead—though less than willingly—but she’s spent her years doing what she can to stand up for women and waiting for her moment to take action. When their lives collide, each woman must make choices and weigh the dangers against the greater good.

I’d put off reading this book for a while, because I wasn’t really interested and didn’t remember how the first book ended. But I finished the book within one day.

Atwood realized that simply picking up where she left off wouldn’t be the right way to continue the story, so she found an alternate way. Atwood’s three characters narrate their stories in a blatant way, owning their choices, mistakes, and humanity, which makes them relatable.

The story also moves quickly. Even though I’m some ways it seemed to zoom right through the crux of the plot, the buildup was the interesting part, I think, gaining the insight into what made each woman think and act as she did.

Though I didn’t find any of the story particularly surprising, in terms of plot points, it was engaging, and in some ways quite difficult to put down. But I would recommend at least a quick refresher on The Handmaid’s Tale, before diving in.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m starting to realize that, though I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction set around World War II, I’m finding it a little tiresome. It seems to be the same sort of story over and over. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr wasn’t quite the same story.

It follows a boy and a girl as they grow up through the pre-war years. Werner, a German boy, is looking for a way out of the mining village he’s grown up in. His escape comes through a government school, training him to be a soldier. But Werner finds himself obeying, or staying silent, in the face of things he doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Marie-Laurie is a young French girl who flees Paris with her father and takes up residence in Saint-Malo. What she doesn’t realize is that, when they flee, her father is charged with an important mission.

As the war progresses, Werner and Marie-Laurie’s stories start to converge during the siege of Saint-Malo. But when things erupt, families and lives are destroyed.

This book was well written, moving quickly and making it very easy to follow each storyline. However, I just didn’t find the story as compelling as I thought it would be (though, when something is so acclaimed, it’s to be expected). The stories didn’t converge until the end, and when they did, it was in a very cliche way. I knew how it would end from the very start (and not just because of the flash forward that starts the story and continues throughout).

In short, it’s a good, quick historical fiction read, but it’s not what I’d call a profound read.