Becky’s Two Hundred and Eighty-Sixth Book Review: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

What I really like about following and participating in the Wall Street Journal Book Club is how a lot of the time, books are chosen that I’ve never read before and would typically not pick up on my own. It widens the breadth of what I read and that’s amazing. Even more fun sometimes though, is reading a book that I’ve read before. That was the case with “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman. I actually read this trilogy for the first time back in high school, so it had been awhile and I was curious to see if it had held up to my standards as an adult. Much to my delight, not only did I enjoy the reread, but I found that the book affected me differently now that I’m older.

When we first dive into this world that Pullman has created we meet Lyra, hiding in a forbidden place and fighting with her dæmon. In this world, a dæmon is kind of like an external soul. This can take many shapes before a person comes of age, and then it picks a permanent form. This whole concept is pretty fascinating to me. The idea of having a companion always with you is pretty cool. Lyra is arguing with Pan (her dæmon) about the dangerous consequences if someone were to catch them. This conversation between them is a solid example of how they balance each other out. Lyra is not one to be afraid of breaking rules or of getting into a little trouble. Her bold spirit is part of what makes her such a fun character. Pan is the voice of caution to Lyra’s adventurous spirit. And it doesn’t take long for Lyra to embrace the adventure when her best friend goes missing. There had been rumors of a group of people nicknamed “the gobblers” kidnapping children. Just what exactly for is unknown, but Lyra refuses to let Roger’s disappearance go unnoticed and uninvestigated, and thus her adventure begins.

As she encounters all different manners of people and beasts Lyra hears many things that she doesn’t understand and it becomes clear that a lot of adults don’t know what is going on either. Science, mythology, and religion are caught up in the mysteries of what is referred to as Dust. Although still just a child, Lyra has an understanding of the world and how things work, better even than some adults. When she is given a tool, it is her unique abilities to see the world that allow her to use it: “The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.” (The Golden Compass, pg 293). This kind of open-mindedness is a large part of what makes Lyra such a unique and compelling character.

Would I recommend this book? Yes – and to young and older readers alike. I really enjoyed this book when I was younger, and I still found myself swept up in Lyra’s adventures as an adult. There are some really interesting concepts in this series and it is a lot of fun to read. I am eager to tackle the second book in the series and see if it holds up as well.

Becky’s Two Hundred and Eighty-Fourth Book Review: “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë

There is something about the Brontë sisters and their writing that I simply cannot get enough of, so when the Wall Street Journal Book Club chose “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë several months ago, I jumped at the chance to read it. It’s a longer book, but highly enjoyable with two main characters – Helen, the tenant, and Gilbert, one of the people that lives in the village near Wildfell Hall.

In a town where everyone knows everyone, a new arrival at Wildfell Hall cannot pass unnoticed. When Helen comes to this quiet place, she initially pushes everyone away. In general, she ignores all typical manners and expectations and is generally thought to be rude. Gilbert meets her and finds himself fascinated. Not just by the woman, but the story he knows she is hiding, and so he pursues her relentlessly until she makes him promise that he is after no more than her friendship, only adding to her mystery. The interactions between these two characters are quite entertaining. He of course knows nothing of who she really is and that makes him all the more determined to befriend her and gain her trust. This interaction happens in the first part of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. In the second half, we learn a great deal more about Helen and how and why she came to Wildfell hall. It is a very intriguing story and it only adds to the strength of Helen as a character.

Part of what makes this a good read is the depth of Helen as a character. On the surface, she seems to be a very rude woman that wants simply to keep to herself, and indeed that is how she comes off to many of the villagers. But as the story unfolds and we learn more about why Helen is the way she is, it becomes clear that she is not only a fascinating character, but also a strong one. The general attitude towards women in this novel is from a time when women were expected to serve their husbands and that was that. This was reflected well when Gilbert’s mother was talking to him: “Then, you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his – bless him! – he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay – and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.” (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pg 54). Having that attitude so prominently displayed also allows for the strength of Helen to shine through so much more. A strong female protagonist is what you will often find in the novels of the Brontë sisters.

Would I recommend this book? Not to everyone. There are some readers that do not have the patience for Anne Brontë’s prose. There are times when her writing goes on about a subject and could be difficult to digest. That being said, I think she writes beautifully. Her characters are intriguing and well developed. I would certainly read this again. But her writing is not for everyone. Still, if you’re looking for a book to push yourself I highly recommend “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë.

Becky’s Two Hundred and Seventy-Ninth Book Review: “Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain

There are times when my stubbornness gets the best of me. That was the case with regards to reading and finishing “Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain. You see, I hate abandoning books after I dedicate so much time to it, especially when I spent a great deal of the book enjoying what I was reading! In the end though, it took far too long to read this book.

There is a reason that so many people know the name Mark Twain. He undeniably has a way with words. “The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.” (Life on the Mississippi, pg 73). I felt the way that Twain described his education on the river was beautiful. There were many passages such as this that I was fascinated by. This was what really captivated me while reading, you can easily get lost in his prose. The challenge for this particular book, since it was a non-fiction, I felt that there really was no plot or focus to the story. Twain would just go on and on about how much of his life was affected by his time on steamboats. A great deal of the time, Twain drifted off in whichever direction he felt like going. Frankly, I got bored. There was no drive to this book and despite the quality of the writing I just did not want to pick it up anymore.

I’m glad I finished the book. There is a big sense of accomplishment to finishing something with which you struggle so. But I would not pick this particular book up again. Would I recommend this? No, not really. The big take away I have from the huge process and struggle of reading “Life on the Mississippi” is that I like the way Mark Twain writes. I will definitely pick up his fictional books in the near future. I disliked the book overall, but it wasn’t so bad that I don’t want to read Twain again. I think, however, that I’ll avoid any books for the foreseeable future that focus around steamboats. One was enough.

Becky’s Two Hundred and Seventieth Book Review: “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” by T. Geronimo Johnson

“Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” by T. Geronimo Johnson is not a book that I would have ever picked up on my own, but when the Wall Street Journal Book Club picked this as the next book, I thought why not? I did not realize what I was getting myself into and to be perfectly honest, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this book.

In “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” we follow Achilles Conroy who has just returned from Afghanistan to find his father has died. His white mother gives Achilles and his brother Troy envelops containing information about their birth parents. Achilles has never wanted this information and convinces himself that Troy feels the same way until he wakes up one morning and realizes that Troy took his envelop and left. His mother asks him to go find Troy and so Achilles leaves home and embarks on a journey to find his brother and ultimately, find his own place in the world after returning home from war.

“Running through his list, Achilles doubted he would ever be happy because he couldn’t stop holding his breath. Even that was cynicism. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he was thinking about without being cynical about it. The army taught him to hope for the best but expect the worst.” (Hold It ‘Til It Hurts, pg 114). Going to war changed him and coming back was almost worse. Trying to live a normal life after having spent so much time being shot at, shooting at others, and watching his friends be killed seemed impossible at times. His attempts to reintegrate into society were challenging. Friendships that worked abroad didn’t quite work at home. He meets Ines and falls hard for her and at the same time, doesn’t seem to have the ability to tell her the truth about himself. He spends so much time hiding everything about his past. He tries to cover for this by saying he doesn’t want to live in the past, but the truth is that he is having trouble facing his demons. Rather than getting help and coping with his issues, he buries it deep within himself.

There were significant examinations of race in this novel. It was a different experience for Achilles having been raised by white parents and going out into the world where a lot of black people judge him harsher by the way that he talks and holds himself. His parents always pushed that race didn’t matter, but as they were protecting him and his brother, they also were shielding them from the hatred in the world that they would experience as soon as they left their hometown. The thing that I really liked about this book was how Johnson really made me stop and think. It was the kind of book that you don’t soon forget.

Would I recommend this book? Yes and no. There are some parts of this book that I wish I had never read. There was a specific incident at a drug dealer’s house that was disturbing and made me almost stop reading the book altogether. But at the same time, reading about Katrina and the aftermath was eye opening. The hurricane hit when I was just graduating high school. I couldn’t comprehend what it really meant or how bad it was. But in “Hold It ‘Til It Hurts” Achilles is deep in the aftermath trying to keep up with his amazingly good-hearted girlfriend. There were a lot of things that happened in this book that just blew me away. This is certainly not for everyone, but I did take a lot away from it. Sometimes it is worth going outside your comfort zone.

Becky’s Two Hundred and Fifty-Second Book Review: “The Tombs of Atuan” by Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Tombs of Atuan” by Ursula K. Le Guin is the second book of the Earthsea series. I normally do not gravitate towards fantasy novels. When I was first given this series by my husband, I placed it on the shelf with plans to read them someday. When the WSJ Book Club picked the first book in the series “A Wizard of Earthsea” I found myself enjoying it quite a bit and fully intended to read the rest of the series soon. All it took was three weeks at home recovering from knee surgery for me to actually pick up this series again! Warning – there are some spoilers ahead.

“The Tombs of Atuan” begins with a death. The high priestess to the Nameless Ones dies. Whenever she dies, she is reborn, and so a search begins for a girl born the same night that the high priestess died. After many months of searching, the wardens and other priestesses found Tenar. At five years old, she was taken from her home and brought to the Tombs to be Eaten. This ceremony stripped her of her name and any ties to her family, and she became Arha: the Eaten One.

Arha was an interesting character. On the one hand, she accepts what she has been told her whole life that she is the high priestess reborn, and on the other hand, she is a young girl learning about herself and the world. And instead of growing up with her family in a village, she lives the life of a high priestess in near-isolation. She was responsible for worshiping and honoring the Nameless Ones in various ceremonies and traditions, and the tediousness eventually gets to her. “Her boredom rose so strong in her sometimes that it felt like terror: it took her by the throat. Not long ago she had been driven to speak of it. She had to talk, she thought, or she would go mad. It was Manan she talked to. Pride kept her from confiding in the other girls, and caution kept her from confession to the older women, but Manan was nothing, a faithful old bellwether; it didn’t matter what she said to him.” (The Tombs of Atuan, pg 24). I like how Le Guin describes the boredom that encapsulates Arha and the struggles she faces daily as she forces herself to suppress her child-like instincts and be the high priestess.

There are moments when the serious façade that Arha wears slips. Most often this happens when she is socializing with the other priestesses at The Place, some of who are her age. “But there was something underneath Penthe’s words with which she didn’t agree, something wholly new to her, frightening to her. She had not realized how very different people were, how differently they saw life. She felt as if she had looked up and suddenly seen a whole new planet hanging huge and populous right outside the window, an entirely strange world, one in which the gods did not matter. She was scared by the solidity of Penthe’s unfaith.” (The Tombs of Atuan, pg 41). I liked this quote for several reasons. It illustrates well how Arha was raised to believe in one thing. She was told that she was the High Priestess reborn and she was told everything that she was required to do and to think. For the longest time, it never occurred to her to have an individual thought. She believed wholeheartedly in the gods and the faith and in her part of the worship, that to have someone else express doubt threw her off. She no longer was confident about everything; there was that shred of doubt that had seeded in her mind. You slowly see a change come over her where she stops being Arha and begins to rediscover Tenar.

It isn’t until about a third into the book that Gar, the Wizard from the first book, comes into the picture. It was interesting seeing him again and from such a different perspective. No one comes to the Tombs of Atuan – not even to worship, and so when the Wizard comes to the Place of the Tombs, he is not welcome. He forces light into the darkness of Arha’s world and it frightens and confuses her. He also ultimately helps her become Tenar.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, I think that Ursula K. Le Guin is a great writer and she creates a world that you love to get lost in. Her writing isn’t overly complicated, so I believe it would be accessible for a lot of people, especially those that tend to steer clear of anything labeled fantasy.

Becky’s Two Hundred and Twenty-Second Book Review: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

I remember reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee in school and wondering what the big deal was. It was a book and it was okay. It didn’t blow me away. At least not when I first read it. When “To Kill a Mockingbird” was chosen as the Wall Street Journal’s Book Club pick this summer I had the perfect excuse to pick up the classic tale as an adult and give it another go. I have to say – I totally get it. The second time around you just have such a better appreciation of the time that Harper Lee was able to grasp in the novel, and the way she was able to capture the challenges a white lawyer would face representing a black guy that had been accused of raping a white girl in an otherwise quiet southern town. And the way that the book was told through a child’s eye – that just gave such an amazing touch to her novel. It is no wonder “To Kill a Mockingbird” is such a classic.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place during the summer when Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, which Scout remembers as the summer that Dill wanted to try to make Boo Radley come out of his house. “People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.” (To Kill a Mockingbird, pg 5/6) I liked this quote. It sets the time period well without going into too much detail. It gives the reader a good foundation of the feel of Maycomb County.

I really enjoyed how Harper Lee wrote from Scout’s perspective. She’s insightful for a child, but also has the occasional philosophical moment where her logic is clearly that of a child. “Mr. Avery said it was written on the Rosetta Stone that when children disobeyed their parents, smoked cigarettes and made war on each other, the seasons would change: Jem and I were burdened with the guilt of contributing to the aberrations of nature, thereby causing unhappiness to our neighbors and discomfort to ourselves.” (To Kill a Mockingbird, pg 63). I remember being that young and having that same blind faith in everything I was told.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely – especially if you read it as a child and thought it was only okay. I am so glad that I went back to it as an adult. It’s not an especially difficult read, but it tackles a lot of issues and does it well. Scout is a very relatable character and that is part of the fun. I almost wish I hadn’t been forced to read it when I was younger, because it was so much harder to appreciate a good book when it is given as homework. That being said, I am very glad I picked this up again and I highly recommend you do the same!

Becky’s Two Hundred and Eighteenth Book Review: “Money” by Martin Amis

“Money” by Martin Amis was a Wall Street Journal book club pick months ago. I have renewed this book from the library thirteen times. You are able to renew a book online ten times. Once I called and renewed it over the phone because I was at the limit for renewing it online. Then I physically went to the library to return and immediately checkout the book. And I also renewed it online again. Why do I keep renewing this book? Well, I don’t like to give up on books. Even if I’m not enjoying them, even if I’ve been trying to get through the book for months, even if everyone who knows me has encouraged me to give up on the book, I will still push through. But there are so many books out there, so many books in my personal collection that I haven’t read, and so many books on my amazon wish list… I have finally concluded that I don’t need to force myself to finish a book that I’ve been working on for almost a year. It’s just an unpleasant reading experience and there is no reason to put myself through that.

This book follows John Self – a director making his first movie in New York City and spending all of his time in self-destruct-mode. He is out late drinking, partying, doing drugs, having sex with anything that moves, etc. It is just a run-on prose following this guy, which I found completely uninteresting. “Money” is supposed to be a suicide note. I’m not sure if he kills himself in the end, because I did not finish the novel. Halfway through the novel, which is as far as I made it, he has certainly tried his best to kill himself through his behaviors and poor life decisions. But he was not a character that I cared about at all.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely not! When I can’t make it through a book that is saying something. The novel is about 350 pages and I couldn’t bring myself to read the last hundred pages. It’s just so bad and I couldn’t care less about any of the characters. I don’t understand why this book was picked for the Wall Street Journal book club, I found nothing appealing or insightful about this book. The author that picked this for the WSJ book club is Carl Hiaasen and after trying so hard to read “Money” I have no intention of every picking up one of his works either. The entire experience left a bad taste in my mouth. That is the tossup when you follow a book club – sometimes the selections are not good. That was certainly the case with “Money” by Martin Amis.