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 One Hundred and Seventy-Fourth Book Review: “The Love of a Good Woman: Stories” by Alice Munro

“The Love of a Good Woman: Stories” by Alice Munro was the Wall Street Journal Book Club pick a few months ago. I fell a little behind with the book before this, so I started it late and only just recently finished it. I have to say that this book was a disappointment. I do not tend to gravitate towards short stories, but as most of the Wall Street Journal book club books have been excellent I did not let that stop me from picking up “The Love of a Good Woman” with high hopes.

I was impressed with Alice Munro’s writing style. Her words quickly captivated me. “So they would jump into the water and feel the cold hit them like ice daggers. Ice daggers shooting up behind their eyes and jabbing the tops of their skulls from the inside. Then they would move their arms and legs a few times and haul themselves out, quaking and letting their teeth rattle; they would push their numb limbs into their clothes and feel the painful recapture of their bodies by their startled blood and the relief of making their brag true.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 5). Munro’s writing illustrated everything so well. I expected to continue to enjoy the book with each page I turned.

The first short story starts out with several boys discovering a body in a lake. The story is narrated in third person but follows each boy separately, while simultaneously detailing each boy’s background. I thought this was very well written and it was certainly interesting. Munro’s observations about many different aspects were relatable and intriguing at the same time. “You can never say, Nobody could make that up. Look how elaborate dreams are, layer over layer in them, so that the part you can remember and put into words is just the bit you can scratch off the top.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 74). With this quote she touches on dreams. At this point I was still enjoying her writing, but I was finding the stories a little hard to follow.

Perhaps it might have been better had I read this book in one sitting, but I spread it out and that led me to be really confused. Part of the issue was that some of the stories seemed related while others did not. Then there were also so many characters that I had trouble keeping track of them. In addition, quite a few of those characters had similar names, which just made it even harder to keep track of what was going on. I liked this quote for what it said, but it is also a great example of how confusing Munro’s writing can be. I had to read this part a few times to figure out what exactly she was talking about. “The sex Kath had with Kent was eager and strenuous, but at the same time reticent. They had not seduced each other but more or less stumbled into intimacy, or what they believed to be intimacy, and stayed there. If there is only to be the one partner in your life nothing has to be made special – it already is so. They had looked at each other naked, but at those times they had not except by chance looked into each other’s eyes.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 104). This also gives the example of there being two characters with similar names that happen to be a couple. Kath and Kent? How are readers supposed to keep track of everyone?

Normally part of what makes a book so enjoyable for me is when I find myself relating to the character or characters. I found this near impossible with the seemingly numerous characters. This one passage I enjoyed because the character was an avid reader just like myself. “Of course, I had less time for reading now, and sometimes I would hold a book in my hand for a moment, in my work at the desk – I would hold a book in my hand as an object, not as a vessel I had to drain immediately – and I would have a flicker of fear, as in a dream when you find yourself in the wrong building or have forgotten the time for the exam and understand that this is only the tip of some shadowy cataclysm or lifelong mistake.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 138). I thought this was a powerful passage, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the character that said it.

There were many passages throughout “The Love of a Good Woman” where I had the same reaction. I found the words that Alice Munro wrote to be inspiring and yet I had such a difficult time keeping track of the characters that I couldn’t really enjoy the book. This was yet another quote that I really enjoyed but I’m not sure who said it. “It was the truth, that there were people whom you positively ached to please. Derek was one of them. If you failed with such people they would put you into a category in their minds where they could keep you and have contempt for you forever.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 236). This was another quote that I really enjoyed on it’s own. Since it was so late in the book, I do remember which character said it and why, but that doesn’t change the fact that beyond knowing the short story that she was involved in, I don’t know how she relates at all to the other stories in this book. “Everybody thought she was just the same except for her skin. Nobody knew how she had changed, and how natural it seemed to her to be separate and polite and adroitly fending for herself. Nobody knew the sober, victorious feeling she had sometimes, when she knew how much she was on her own.” (The Love of a Good Woman, pg 253). This quote was powerful.

Would I recommend this book? No, I would not recommend this book to anyone. I thought that Alice Munro’s writing was excellent, but the storyline was so difficult to follow that whatever illusions I had when I started the book about enjoying it, they were quickly dissipated. I read a lot of books, so it is fair to say when I find the story hard to follow, that it is hard to follow. I doubt that I would pick up anything else that Alice Munro has written.