Tag Archives: mothers

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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You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

Heather Sellers says again and again that, when she shares the story of her family with other people, people who don’t know her parents, they react with shock and incredulity.  How, exactly, could a child have grown up relatively normal if both her father and her mother were so irrational, so abusive, so … well, crazy?  In her memoir, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Sellers explores her current life in the context of her childhood in an interesting way that leads to a greater understanding of her own behavior and the path she is living.

Sellers starts off discussing her trip from Michigan to Florida with her boyfriend and his two sons.  They are going because Sellers has a speaking engagement, because the boys haven’t been to Disney World, because she has her twentieth high school reunion, and because that’s where her parents are.  The visit to both parents’ homes goes badly, leaving Sellers disheartened.

Throughout the rest of the book, we learn why her parents’ behavior is so odd.  Well, not why it’s odd, but we learn that it’s normal for her mother to behave as if someone’s been looking through her purse and for her father to think it’s appropriate for his daughter to sleep in a recliner she shares with a dog while he has an extra room filled with odd gadgets.  These are not people who should ever have had children — at least not together.  Instead of providing Sellers with stable ground to find her feet, these two constantly caused earthquakes.

In her adult life, Sellers accosted by a former high school boyfriend, who pesters her with questions about her mother.  “What was she, schizophrenic?” he finally asks, leaving Sellers struggling to cope with the realization that her mother might be mentally ill.  She asks her parents, but gets no answers from either of them.

Meanwhile, while she’s worried about her mother’s well-being, Sellers is also realizing that she has something going on in her brain.  She can’t recognize faces.  While she can make guesses as to who people are, she often walks right by people she knows (and occasionally greets people who are strangers).  She figures out what she has, asks for diagnostics … and her concerns are minimized.  It is not until researchers at Harvard find out that she thinks she has face blindness and invite her to be part of a study does she get confirmation of the fact that she cannot, in fact, recognize people.

Try getting people to believe that.  Most of the rest of the book documents her attempts to get those around her to realize that, no, she’s not being rude, she just can’t recognize you.  No, it’s not that she doesn’t remember names.  No, hair and clothes aren’t always enough to be able to discern someone.  Sellers explores the difficulties in trying to get others to realize that she does have a disability, which is something a lot of us can relate to.

My main issue with You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is that, with the split structure, I had a limited amount of interest in Sellers’ story.  I wanted her to pick one line and stick to it!  Having read the entire thing, I see why she made the choice she did.  I still think it might have been better to make the two a little more distinct; the book is already divided into chapters and sections; why not use a section to explore one time period?

Other than that, You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a solid medical memoir with some interesting familial twists.  I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading about dysfunctional families, odd medical maladies, or both.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Stitches by David Small

I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill.  I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion.  I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer.  But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease.  In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him.  This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.

Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir.  The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language.  No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.

Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could.  The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells.  It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.

Now, down to the actual memoir.  Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme.  His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital.  When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer.  His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.

But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life.  She is cold, almost always angry.  She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!”  After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck.  During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture.  After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer.  She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house.  Her concern was with the electric bill.

Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother.  She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children.  It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him.  Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.

The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy.  His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life.  Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment.  As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you.  One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal.  Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Rating: 5/5

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