Tag Archives: Christianity

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

So, I’ve finally reached the end of the His Dark Materials series.  I have my answers as to what happens to Lyra and Will — for the most part.  I also have answers for what happens to all the major characters, which is satisfying.  Out of all the books, The Amber Spyglass is the most complex of the three by far.  It is, therefore, the most rewarding to read.  Pullman constructs a universe whose properties lend us the freedom to imagine many answers to our questions, and to make what we will of the final events in Lyra and Will’s story.

We start out the book with Lyra kidnapped and drugged by her mother, with Will and Iorek in pursuit.  Meanwhile, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, is raising an army — and an armory — to wage war with Metatron, the angel who has taken control of all the forces loyal to the Authority.  The main story in a more conventional book would be the fight between Lord Asriel and Metatron.

Instead, we follow Will’s efforts to free Lyra from her mother and keep her safe.  They are joined, at various points, by angels, Gallivespians (a sort of fairy-like creature), and Mary Malone, the scientist from The Subtle Knife.  Their main task, Lyra discovers from the alethiometer, is to set free the spirits in the world of the dead.  The two of them, along with two Gallivespians, travel to perform this task, facing significant peril along the way, not the least of which is separation from their dæmons.

Meanwhile, Mary Malone, who slipped through into another world after destroying equipment back in Oxford, finds herself at home among a species of creatures called mulefa.  She lives with them, learns their ways, and discovers that even they are untouched by the problems of Dust; it’s required for the survival of trees the mulefa depend upon, and it’s not flowing as it used to.  Mary constructs a spyglass in order to view the Dust directly, which comes in handy when she happens upon Will and Lyra once again.

I think the beauty of The Amber Spyglass is that it has a lot to say about religion — especially Christianity — but that one can interpret its message in many ways.  There’s a historical commentary in there, as well as a warning about the dangers of blind faith.  That’s one of the reasons I liked the book so much; I can see many of my own attitudes toward organized religion (as opposed to faith come by honestly) folded within.  I don’t agree with everything Pullman suggests, but I at least enjoyed the food for thought he provides.

I’m going to miss this series.  I whizzed through it, by my own standards — I usually break up series in order to provide myself a little bit of time to process what’s going on.  It was just too engrossing for me to do that this time.  I think the His Dark Materials series is one of the best I’ve read that’s intended for children and young adults.  I’ll be holding on to them for my own children to read some day, and that’s one of the highest sorts of praise I can offer a book.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

I rarely read one book after another in a series; I like to have other books interspersed in between to allow me some time to process the events and to put them in perspective.  I just couldn’t do that with the His Dark Materials series.  The first one was too good.  This time, Pullman provides us with a strong hero to go along with the strong heroine he gave us in The Golden Compass, and the result is another wonderful book.

The Subtle Knife starts off with a bang.  Will Parry, a young man with an absent father and a mentally ill mother, is forced to leave his mother with a neighbor while he tries to track down his father.  On his way out of town, he kills a man who is trying to steal from him and runs from the man’s partner.  Seeking a place to hide, he finds a small slit in space and walks through it into another world.

It’s in that other world where he meets up with Lyra.  The two band together, moving back and forth between Will’s universe and the crossroads universe known as Cittàgazze.  Will’s world matches closely with ours (I suspect it’s supposed to be our world), and Lyra visits a scientist at Oxford to ask about Dust.  Her inquiries, combined with Will’s crime, make life a little sketchy for the two of them there.

Things aren’t much better in Cittàgazze.  There is an abundance of children, but few cognizant adults.  Specters, invisible and harmless to children, seek out adults and seem to feed on their consciousness.  Life isn’t easier for Lyra and Will in this child-only place; events occur that make it just as uncomfortable and dangerous as Will’s world.

Part of the danger comes from Lyra ignoring the alethiometer.  It tells her that her task is to assist Will in his quest to find his father, and she seeks out information on Dust instead, which tips off the people looking for Will.  One ignores an oracle at one’s peril, it would appear.

Throughout the book, Pullman gives us more information about the larger story behind the smaller events of Lyra and Will’s lives.  The Oxford scientist, Mary Malone, is researching dark matter (what she terms “Shadows”), and also used to be a nun.  On Lyra’s first visit, she asks about Dust, and the connection is made that dark matter and Dust are most likely the same thing — which helps them to some extent, but leaves them still not knowing exactly what it is.

We also get more theology mixed in here.  There are angels traveling through the universes to join with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father.  Lyra herself is talked about in some religiously-interesting ways.  We still have witches — Serafina Pekkala is still with us — but we also gain a shaman.

And, of course, there’s the knife itself.  Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife at a high price and knows of its powers to keep away specters.  What he doesn’t know is that it has some other interesting lore attached to it, and that lore may have a great deal to say about what Will’s destiny is.

The most interesting thing to me about The Subtle Knife is the mythology Pullman is building.  I really want to know what’s going on, and can’t wait to get into the third book to see how he wraps everything up.  I’m at a complete loss for how this is going to play out, and it makes me really happy to find a book series that keeps me guessing.  Maybe it’ll be fantastic, maybe it’ll fall apart at the end; the fun is in the anticipation of how great it can be, which makes this book pretty great in and of itself.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass.  I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it.  I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.

There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives.  She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel.  Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life.  Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will.  Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.

Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined.  Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications.  I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it.  Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology.  Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together.  I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.

The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted.  Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events.  The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.

But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself.  She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do.  She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar.  Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth.  More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child.  Lyra is not that, and will never be that.  She is, however, a remarkable child.  Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring.  Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.

Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.  They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later.  After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.

Rating: 5/5.

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Towing Jehovah by James Morrow

Towing Jehovah, at first blush, appeared to be a great fit for me for reading material.  God’s dead, a failed oil-tanker captain is charged with moving His body to the Arctic to give Him a proper resting place, and antics ensue.  Unfortunately, Morrow’s telling of this promising story lacks a solid core.  The reader can sift through without finding much that will enlighten or entertain, which disappointed me greatly.

First, though, the positives, for the book does have some.  Morrow’s characters are often entertainingly funny, whether they mean to be or not.  I enjoyed a lot of the individual scenes simply because they are constructed to be awkwardly humorous.

Some of the character development is also pretty good.  Anthony Van Horne, the aforementioned captain, grows throughout the book from a washed-up, beaten-down character to one who is in control of himself and his situation.  This is a gentle process, and it was almost surprising toward the end, when Anthony behaves like one hell of a good ship captain.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters are basically empty shells in which Morrow can pour his preconceived notions of how certain people should act.  An atheist feminist, Cassie, is incensed that God exists and was a man.  She arranges for the body to be sunk into the ocean, so that … the world wouldn’t know that God once existed and was a man.

I’ll be honest.  The entire thread in the book that places atheists in an antagonistic position regarding the big dead body in the water is a little confusing.  There is one member of the atheist group who insists that they should study the body, which is summarily dismissed for the much more rational decision to bomb the corpse using World War II reenactment planes.

In fact, besides Anthony (and Cassie, once she’s in a relationship), the only character who appears to be a rational and admirable person is Thomas Ockham, a Jesuit the Church sent along on the voyage.  He’s the voice of reason and basically can’t do wrong.  Don’t misunderstand me — I think that Catholic monks are just as likely as anyone else to behave in an admirable way.  It was just irksome to me that he was the only one who appeared to have no issues with temptation, sin, or to suffer major ill effects from the body of God.

This obviously isn’t true for the rest of the crew, a good portion of which mutiny and go wild, Roman-style, complete with gladiatorial-style brawling.  I seriously doubt that most people’s reactions to a  gigantic dead deity would be to completely rebel against common morality and revel in debauchery.  Maybe that’s just my optimism coming out, but I seriously don’t think that most people think enough about God and His impact on their behavior for His death to alter said behavior too much.

There was one other part of the book that I just couldn’t get my head past.  It’s a personal thing, but, for those of you who have read Stranger in a Strange Land, it’s the same reason I don’t like that book, either.  Well, one of the reasons.

Maybe there’s just something about me and fiction involving boats.  I know that I didn’t particularly like Island in the Sea of Time, and that heavily featured a boat.  It’s probably a good thing, then, that I’ve never even attempted Moby-Dick; I’d probably pan it.  Towing Jehovah had its charming moments.  They just weren’t charming enough.

Rating: 2/5.

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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

While Cutting for Stone was on my reading list, it was not particularly high; it was a book I’d get to eventually.  My mother, however, bought it, read it, and passed it along.  I am glad she did, because Cutting for Stone is an engrossing family saga that, despite its length, I managed to get through in only a couple of days.

The book is about Anglo-Indian twins born in Ethiopia to a nun-nurse and a surgeon.  Abandoned by the father (who tried to perform in-the-birth-canal infanticide) and having lost their mother to the trials of their birth, they are taken in by the two other doctors at Missing Hospital.  The book follows Marion, the firstborn of the two boys, and his experience growing up in a multitude of ways: as a twin, as the child of doctors, as a ferengi despite having been born in Addis Ababa, as a witness to upheaval in Ethiopia, and as a romantic idealist.

Verghese does a wonderful job of crafting the events of Marion’s childhood and adolescence.  Marion and his brother, Shiva, have a companion in Genet, an Eritrean servant’s daughter.  The pettiness of his childhood grudges and mixed feelings about Genet and Shiva snowball into something very interesting throughout the book.  His emotions are understandable and very human.

Hema and Ghosh, the two doctors who, for all intents and purposes are Marion and Shiva’s parents, are very good parents.  The only thing I question about them is something that also makes the book totally worth reading if you’re at all interested in surgery: they allow their sons access to medical texts, Gray’s Anatomy, and, eventually, let them watch and participate in procedures.

The most amazing component of this book is the detailed surgical and medical description.  Abraham Verghese is himself a physician, and he manages to create a real surgical scene while not making it feel as if it were artificially plopped down in the middle of a chapter.  It’s just so wonderfully crafted that I can barely believe it.

The only drawback Cutting for Stone has is that the ending wraps up a bit too neatly.  There are a few too many coincidences and a few too many things that just cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief.  This is most likely because the rest of the book is so realistic.  I understand Verghese’s choices regarding how he ended the book; I just don’t feel like they made for the most realistic — or satisfying — conclusion.

Overall, Cutting for Stone is a well-crafted, realistic tale about a family both brought together and torn apart by the same things — medicine, education, and love.  It’s too bad that the last part of Marion’s story didn’t hold to the realistic standard Verghese had set up through the vast majority of the book.

Rating: 4/5.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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