Thursday, October 31, 2019

Island by Aldous Huxley

After spending most of October reading the His Dark Materials series, I wanted to get back to work on my Classics Club list. I decided to pick up Island by Aldous Huxley, based mostly on the amazing cover design of the edition I owned. I didn't know anything about the plot of the novel when I chose it, but I thought it might be something like the first Huxley book I read in high school, Brave New World. As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong.

The plot of Island follows a man named Will Farnaby. At the start of the novel, he is shipwrecked on a remote island named Pala. Outsiders aren't usually allowed to visit Pala, but as he injured his leg in the accident, the friendly natives offer to let him stay while they nurse him back to health. As he heals, he gets a chance to learn all about the culture and philosophy of the island, and his life is forever changed by what he discovers.

The island of Pala is a utopian society, and is governed by philosophies that include mindfulness, community spirit, and limited contact with modern industry. They practice fertility control to keep their population manageable, and use a whole mind-body approach to public health and education. Equal weight is given to physical, mental, emotional, and sexual aspects of wellness, with efficient processes in place to identify and rehabilitate anyone in need of medical or psychological interventions. Many of their rituals and ways of thinking are based on Buddhism, with meditation and "living in the now" forming the main parts of their beliefs.

Family life in Pala is centered around "mutual adoption clubs," or MACs, made up of around twenty family units each. Each family adopts everyone else's family to form one large network of support. Children can move freely between many different sets of parents as needed, which promotes a general atmosphere of familial harmony. Both their economic and political systems are structured to limit the amount of wealth or power any one person can accumulate, which keeps most citizens more or less equal within their society. Everyone's differences are valued and people approach all problems with logic and calmness. It's a true paradise.

As Will learns more and more about this island, he is able to work through some troubling issues from his personal life and comes to adopt many of the Palanese beliefs. Island is about both his growth as a person, and about how a restructuring of what we choose to pay attention to and care for in society might bring us one step closer to an ideal world.

This was quite an odd book, to say the least. There wasn't much actual story to it; it was more like a series of conversations exploring Huxley's suggestions for society. While some of his ideas are pretty wild (like using hypnosis to eliminate all pain or communal use of hallucinogenic drugs), many of them make a lot of sense. The general tone throughout the novel was one of hope and peacefulness. Gone was the pessimism of Brave New World. The citizens in Island were a content and joyful group, and they put up with Will's initial sarcasm and endless questions very patiently. Their persistent belief in their way of life eventually change his mind about a lot of things, their persuasive explanations will undoubtedly work on a lot of readers too.

I didn't dislike my reading experience, but I did find it to be on the dry and boring side. A world without problems doesn't exactly make for a thrilling read, and I did find myself nodding off occasionally in some of the more dense sections. There is a small bit of conflict present in a plotline involving two members of Palanese royalty that have been poisoned by the consumerism and religious institutions of modern societies, but their inclusion is quite brief and feels like more of an annoyance than anything else. Their influence becomes much more important in the final pages of the novel, but a few paragraphs of action didn't change the fact that most of the novel lacked any form of conflict.

Speaking of the final pages of the novel, unfortunately, they were the low point of my reading experience. Most of the last chapter of Island is a description of an extended hallucination sequence after Will tries the mushrooms that the Palanese frequently use. Will experiences several personal revelations during this experience, but it was difficult to follow and dull. In general, I really dislike drug or alcohol-induced hallucinations in novels, so this may have been more of a personal preference issue rather than a problem with the story. Also, the last page or so of the story was disturbingly dark, in a way that felt strange and abrupt. It was a shame to end on a down note, since I had mostly enjoyed exploring the weirdness of everything that had come before, but the last part of the novel was a disappointment for me.

Island was my first utopian novel and it was a very unique reading experience. I liked diving into the strange and idyllic world that Huxley envisioned. It was not the most engaging reading experience I have ever had, but it was different enough to keep me mildly entertained. If the novel were much longer, I think my attention would have run short with it, but as it was, I made it through before I got too frustrated. I don't know if I would ever really recommend it to anyone aside from true Aldous Huxley fans, but if you are interested in him and his ideas, then Island is worth picking up. 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#100 on my list): 56/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 69

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Verify by Joelle Charbonneau

I'm currently teaching a unit on dystopian fiction to my eighth graders, and I needed a novel to read alongside of them. I had recently picked up Verify by Joelle Charbonneau, so I decided to give that one a shot. I had read and mildly enjoyed Charbonneau's The Testing trilogy years ago, so I figured that this would be a pretty safe pick to read quickly and recommend to my students afterward. As I was to discover, I was only kind of right.

The plot of the story follows Meri Beckley, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Chicago in the future. This version of Chicago is seemingly perfect. There is virtually no crime, and the government has made great strides in creating pristine, beautiful communities where everyone gets along and works together. As the novel begins, Meri is struggling to cope with the recent death of her mother, a prominent artist who was struck by a car several months earlier. While examining some of the artwork her mother left behind, she stumbles across a series of images that lead her to a mysterious underground group called the Stewards.

One of the leaders within this group, another teen named Atlas, begins to tell Meri facts that she didn't know existed about her world - facts that throw everything she thought she knew about her idyllic community and about her own mother into doubt. Soon, it becomes clear to Meri that she has been living in a world that is highly censored and rigidly controlled by the government, and that her mother's death was not due to a random car accident. Understanding this, Meri embarks on a mission to continue the work her mother started, and alert people to the reality of their oppression.

This book was a bit of a mess, and it's a real shame because Charbonneau had some intriguing ideas here. On the positive side, I enjoyed the novel's message about the dangers of censorship and the importance of books. It's a crucial message that is still relevant in our society today, as we grapple with the current government's stance on "fake news" and its treatment of reporters and news outlets. I also enjoyed the ways Charbonneau showed the government exerting control over the people. Getting rid of all books and paper under the guise of a recycling program, and controlling the flow of information through the tablets everyone uses in lieu of physical media was interesting and felt like something that could actually happen. Also, I really liked the cover design. It was very distinctive and ad eye-catching, and made excellent use of colors.

Unfortunately, the positive aspects in the novel were swallowed up by its problems. This novel has serious issues with characterization and pacing. Meri, Atlas, and the rest of the characters were rather flat, and it was difficult to feel engaged in their struggles. No one came alive in the story for me, and the insta-romance that was thrown in for Meri was unsatisfying and unnecessary. The pacing was very unrealistic as well, with the events of the story taking place over the course of just two or three days. This was entirely too fast for a young girl to uncover the truth about her dystopian world and lead a resistance movement. However, the short amount of time the story took place over doesn't mean that the book was fast paced. Somehow, the action of the plot felt oddly slow. There were long, boring stretches in the story. The novel as a whole just didn't feel right; it was too difficult to suspend my disbelief while reading.

Aside from these issues, there was one other aspect of the story that irked me that I must mention - the terminology used by the resistance movement. The Stewards use train lingo as code words for their operation. It's a nod to the Underground Railroad, but it didn't come across well (at least to me) at all. Everything within their operation, and I mean everything, had a train code word. People within it were classified as conductors, porters, stokers, etc. The different bases were referred to as "stations." The rooms with beds were referred to as "sleeper cars." The suicide pills members carried were referred to as "dead man's switches." Being inducted into the movement was referred to as getting a "ticket." It was too much. It didn't come across as cool or secretive; it came across as unbearably cheesy and I started cringing every time I heard a train word. More than any other issue I had with the novel, this language choice bothered me the most.

Verify is a novel with a lot of potential and great ideas, but it ultimately falls down in its execution. I was right in my initial assumption that this would be a quick read, but I was wrong in my assumption that I would be able to recommend this to students. Reluctant readers will struggle with the slow pace and avid readers will struggle with the unrealistic story elements. I'm not sure who would really, truly enjoy this story. This is book one in a planned duology, and I'm not sure that I will be picking up the second novel. Sadly, this is one of those reads that was mediocre and is destined to be forgotten as I move forward with my reading life.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 44/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 68

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

*This review will contain spoilers for the first two books in the series,The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife.*

Shortly after finishing (and enjoying) The Subtle Knife, I decided to pick up the final book in the His Dark Materials series next and finish off the trilogy. The Amber Spyglass picks up right where the last book ends, with Will finding and immediately losing his father, then discovering the Lyra has been kidnapped. 

This is a tough novel to summarize, as it is a sprawling and epic adventure told from the perspective of many characters and layered with lots of symbolism. Speaking generally, the first part of the novel deals with Will's attempts to rescue Lyra, and the rest of the novel deals with Will and Lyra's journey into the land of the dead and their participation in the final battle of the novel between the church, the Authority, and Lord Asriel's army. Also included in the story are sections focusing on Mary Malone, the scientist studying particle physics Lyra first meets in The Subtle Knife. She travels to an alternate dimension filled with strange creatures who need her help to save their species. She crafts the eponymous amber spyglass to analyze the Dust swirling through their atmosphere, which aids in her efforts to reverse the problems this world is facing. She is able to determine that all the rifts between the worlds, torn open through various means over time, are causing the Dust to leak out, with disastrous environmental effects. Eventually, Will and Lyra unite with her there, where they must make some difficult decisions about how to seal off all the alternate worlds from each other and move forward with their own lives.

I enjoyed reading this novel, and it did provide a satisfying end to the series. I was pleased to see my favorite character, the armored bear Iorek Byrnison, return in it, even though his part in the story was limited. I was also pleased to see Lyra regain some of the spunk she lost in the second book of the series and act like her regular, mischievous self again. I liked Will's character a little bit more in this book too. The relationship between the pair was more of a partnership this time around, instead of Lyra blindly going along with whatever Will decided was best.

While I thought this was a stronger entry in the series than The Subtle Knife was, I did struggle a bit with some elements of it. For a children's fantasy series, this was far from an easy read. The path Lyra and Will travel is long and winding, with layers of religious symbolism to it that I didn't always understand. I wasn't sure what everything in the story was meant to represent, especially the Dust, and as the Dust is the most important force in the story, this was probably not a great plot element for me to be confused about. It was easy to get lost between all the different characters, events, and symbols, and the slow pace of many of the sections made deciphering everything a challenge. Ultimately, I did like this story, but I was definitely ready for it to be done by the time I got to the end of the book.

Despite my issues, Philip Pullman's overall themes regarding kindness, personal responsibility, sacrifices, and doing the right thing just for the sake of doing right come across clearly. His stance is firmly against organized religion, and that's a position I found it fascinating to explore in a novel for young readers. The characters in this novel wage a war against God, and things do not go well for God. I was astounded and excited to discover that this was what the novels were about. I did a little research to see how often this book gets banned from school libraries, and the answer is a lot. It is one of the most challenged books of all time in the United States, a distinction that Pullman himself regards as an honor. This guy has guts and I respect his dedication to his beliefs.

So while I had mixed feelings across this series, I am very glad to have spent the time to read it this year and I liked it overall. The first novel in the series, The Golden Compass, has become one of my favorite fantasy novels, and I am still looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation. As far as my reading goes, I think I need a break from this world for a little while. When I am ready to return to it again, however, I can dive into Pullman's companion series to these novels, The Book of Dust. Maybe I'll finally be able to understand what the Dust is once I give those a shot. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 43/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 67

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

*This review will contain spoilers for the first book in this series, The Golden Compass"*

After reading (and heartily enjoying) The Golden Compass earlier this month, I was excited to pick up the second novel in the series, The Subtle Knife. With the HBO adaptation coming out at the start of November, I wanted to get it read. Plus, I was excited to see how Lyra's story would continue. I went into my reading hoping that this book would be as fantastic as the first one was, and luckily, I was (mostly) not disappointed.

Chronologically speaking, the story picks up right where the last one ended, with Lyra walking into another universe in order to learn more about the Dust. However, we start from the perspective of a new character, a young boy named Will Parry. Will lives in England, and has a heavy weight on his shoulders. He is struggling to care for his mentally ill mother and prevent anyone from finding out how sick she is. Through a series of misadventures, he manages to cross over into a different universe. He finds himself in a deserted city called Cittágazze, and after wandering around for a bit, he runs into Lyra, who also traveled to Cittágazze from her world.

As both children are in difficult spots, they decide to help each other on their respective missions. Lyra wants to determine what the Dust is, and Will wants to try and help his mother by finding his father, an explorer who has been missing (and presumed dead) since he was a baby. Both head back into Will's world to seek answers to their questions, setting into motion a chain of events that draws them deep into Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel's continuing and complex schemes. Along the way, Will comes into possession of a curious artifact known as the Subtle Knife, a small blade with the powers to cut through anything - even through the veils between different worlds.

As the children begin to move between universes, it becomes clear that there is more to Will's father's disappearance than anyone realized. Understanding this, Lyra and Will embark on a treacherous journey to find him, hoping to unlock the mystery of the Dust in the process. Old friends from Lyra's first adventure arrive to help support them, including the witch queen Serafina Pekkala and the balloon navigator Lee Scoresby. All the while, underneath the characters' more immediate concerns, the boundaries between the universes are weakening and a terrible war is brewing. Lyra and Will will have a part to play in all of it, and unbeknownst to them, they are inching closer and closer to the center of everything.

I definitely enjoyed The Subtle Knife, but it felt like a middle book to me. There was a lot of universe building going on, and it lacked the action and suspense of The Golden Compass. That being said, it was still an engaging and complex entry into the series. It is the shortest book out of the three, and having already starting reading The Amber Spyglass, I assume it will be the weakest as well.

One of the elements of the story that I didn't particularly enjoy was the shift away from Lyra as the main character. I really enjoyed her spunky, brave personality in the first book, and I missed focusing on her exclusively here. Will was fine as a character, but bland in comparison. His goal of finding his father becomes the whole plot of the novel, and Lyra is relegated to being a supporting character. She pledges her complete loyalty to his wishes, and even stops using the alethiometer unless he asks her to. After seeing her grow so much and become so strong in The Golden Compass, this was a letdown. 

Also a letdown: my favorite character, the armored bear Iorek Byrnison, wasn't part of this story. I already know he's in the last one though, so at least I have something to look forward to in The Amber Spyglass.

On a more positive and intriguing note, I was surprised to see how deep a role religion plays in the overall themes of the story. It was a powerful force in the first novel, but it becomes more clearly defined in the second, with angels and God (known as The Authority) becoming part of the plot. Usually, I'm not the biggest fan of religious themes in books, but the way it is handled here is quite subversive. Religion is not shown in a positive light at all. It is a corrupting and controlling element in the characters' lives, which is an interesting angle for a children's novel to take. I'm very interested to see how this develops throughout the rest of the series.

So, while I did not enjoy The Subtle Knife quite as much as The Golden Compass, I still had a good reading experience and I'm still loving the series as a whole. I'm already working on the final book, and I'm really looking forward to finding out how the story ends.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 42/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 66

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Native Son by Richard Wright

Next up for my Back to the Classics Challenge, I decided to go with Native Son by Richard Wright. I knew nothing about the plot of this novel before I started reading it, and I chose not to read the introduction to the novel in order to keep it that way. I ended up being glad I made that decision, because this is one of those reads that is definitely better the less you know about it going in. That being said, I will summarize the start of the plot below, so if anyone out there is planning to pick this one up, you might want to stop reading now.

The novel follows Bigger Thomas, a young African American man living in Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. He is living with his mother and two younger siblings in a tiny, rat-infested, one-room rental. The family struggles to make ends meet, and relies on government assistance to get by. As the story begins, Bigger is offered a job working as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family in the city. He isn't interested in working a regular job like this, but the welfare office will cut off the family's relief check if he doesn't take the work they offer him, so he is forced to accept the position.

Upon meeting his new employers, Bigger is immediately uncomfortable. The Dalton family are almost too friendly and helpful towards him, offering him more money and opportunities than a person in his position would normally be offered. Their adult daughter, Mary, in particular, confuses Bigger with her open-minded attitudes and speeches praising labor unions and the Communist Party. He is not educated or intelligent enough to understand what she is talking about most of the time, and regards her with extreme suspicion.

His first night on the job, Bigger is tasked with driving Mary to her college class. The evening spirals into a confusing and tense one for him, as Mary immediately ditches school and asks Bigger to drive her and her boyfriend around town instead. Fearing for his new job, he complies with what she asks him to do, but inwardly becomes more and more nervous and angry. Mary and her boyfriend drink and kiss in the back of the car for hours until she passes out, and Bigger is left to pick up the pieces and get her home without her parents finding out that he was helping her sneak around. In a moment of fear and panic, he accidentally smothers Mary while trying to get her back in her bedroom undetected.

The rest of the novel follows Bigger as he tries to cover up his accidental murder, then, failing that, evade the police. Throughout his journey, he grapples with confusion, fear, and a disturbing sense of freedom in the wake of his actions. By operating outside of the law, he feels more in control of his life than he ever has before. For the first time, he isn't struggling under the oppressive yoke of racism that limits everything from where he can live to where he can work. He is making decisions for himself. At the same time, he knows what he has done could very well lead to his death, and he fears being caught. The resulting story is a powerful commentary on race relations in America and the tragedies that spring from inequality.

Native Son is a powerful book. It feels like something you would read in school, full of important themes and layered with symbolism. It is divided into three large sections, and the first two are genuine page turners. I was shocked by Bigger's actions and anxious to see how the story would develop. Unlike many classic novels, that couch violent or sexual events in euphemistic language, Richard Wright tells it like it is here. I remember my jaw actually dropping open at a few passages. The third section of the novel is a bit slower, and packed with dense passages explaining the novel's deeper themes. It took me a bit longer to make my way through this part, and I didn't enjoy it as much as the first two sections, but it does drive home the main points Richard Wright was making throughout the story. Overall, this was an engaging and complex read, and one that is still quite relevant to our world today.  

The only bits of the novel that felt outdated are the numerous references to communism throughout the story. Mary Dalton, her boyfriend, and Bigger's lawyer are all members of the Communist Party and all of them preach the benefits of that system. Communism is presented as a potential solution to racism-a way to level the playing field. Wright was a communist himself, and sections of the book read more like propaganda than parts of a narrative. It was still interesting to examine how this philosophy functioned in America during this time period, but it definitely felt old.

Bigger's character was probably the most interesting element of the novel for me. He's not a likable protagonist at all. At the start of the story, we see him plan future robberies, masturbate in a movie theater, and beat up one of his only friends for no good reason at all. On top of all this, he is unintelligent, rude to his family, and prone to fits of powerful rage. Despite all this, however, I came to feel quite bad for him throughout his story. Wright walks the fine line between condoning his actions and showing how he came to be the way he is. The racism present in his world undoubtedly shaped his personality and behavior, but at the same time, doesn't excuse it. Wright's storytelling is skillful enough to be sympathetic to Bigger without asking the reader to completely release him from blame. His writing focuses on the tragedy of it all, on how an unwillingness to try and understand others breeds anger, aggression, and distrust.

As far as classic novels go, this one is definitely one worth reading. Native Son's message about race is still thought-provoking and its plot is engaging. It is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about classic American literature, and a must read for anyone who seeks to understand the experience of different races throughout our history. I have one other Wright novel on my Classics Club list (Black Boy), and after reading Native Son, I am looking forward to picking it up. This was definitely one of my more successful reads from my list. 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#12 on my list): 55/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 65

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Ever since I saw the preview for HBO's His Dark Materials adaptation, I have been itching to start reading the series. I've had all three books sitting on my shelf for a while now, but I hadn't gotten a chance to pick them up yet. With the show set to premier in November, I figured it was time to get started.

Book one, The Golden Compass, is set in an alternate version of England. In this world, religious orders control the government, magic is real, and everyone has a personal daemon companion. The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan who has grown up in Jordan College, a part of Oxford University. She has an uncle, Lord Asriel, but he is frequently away in the North on various political missions and she doesn't see him much. She has been raised by a collection of stodgy academics, and has grown up half intelligent and half wild as a result. She has spent most of her young life so far playing outside with the children of the servants and wandering the university's sprawling campus.

She is drawn into a mystery when one of her usual exploring sessions results in her overhearing a meeting between her uncle and other senior college staff members containing some troubling news. Children are disappearing from the city, snatched away by a mysterious group of men nicknamed "Gobblers." When her friend Roger disappears soon after this, Lyra embarks on a quest to the dangerous North to try and find him. On her way, she will encounter witches, armored polar bears, and truly evil machinations. Secrets are revealed, trust is betrayed, and her view of the world is irrevocably shifted.

The Golden Compass is a very difficult book to write a succinct and accurate summary for, because the world Philip Pullman creates in it is so rich and layered. Lyra's England runs on a curious mixture of religion, science, and magic, and all of these elements conflict with each other throughout the story. The setting is a strange mixture of the antiquated and the modern, making it both fascinating and a little tricky to envision clearly. Members of different political factions are all striving towards different goals, and their clashes with each other weave a complex network of plot lines to untangle. It was a pleasantly surprising challenge and an absolute pleasure to make my way through this novel. It's a young adult fantasy that does not talk down to its audience and doesn't shy away from showing all the sides of humanity, from the irrepressibly good to the unrelentingly evil.

One aspect of the story that I found especially intriguing were the antagonists. When reading a fantasy novel, especially one that I know has a talking bear in it, I expect the villain of the story to be darkly magical or maybe some sort of evil monster or force of nature. While the story does contain plenty of fantastical elements, the evil the Lyra fights against is all too human. Her enemies here are the ruthless ambitions of regular people who are working at cross-purposes to each other, and to humanity as a whole. I liked exploring this juxtaposition throughout the story. In a setting imbued with the impossible, the greatest dangers Lyra faces are rooted in impulses that could exist in any world.

Speaking of the talking bear, I must devote a few sentences to him. Iorek Byrnison was definitely my favorite character in this book, and has also become one of my favorite characters of all time. The armored polar bears in the story have their own society and culture in the far north, but we meet Iorek far from this city. He's been exiled from his people for killing another bear, and has been working for a man in a human town repairing sledges. After Lyra does an important favor for him, he joins her on her quest to the north. Iorek is a bear of few words; he is gruff, matter-of-fact, and quite abrupt most of the time. However, he is fiercely loyal to Lyra and becomes her devoted friend throughout the story. Their relationship was very sweet to watch unfold and I grew quite attached to him. The danger of falling in love with a character in a trilogy is that they character could change in unfavorable ways, disappear from the story, or die as the series moves on. I hope Iorek stays around and stays just the way I like him.

The ways magic functioned in this story were quite unique, and I especially enjoyed the daemon system. A daemon in this universe is the outward expression of a person's soul. It takes the form of an animal and stays by its person's side for life, like a built-in best friend. The connection between daemons and their people is deep; when a daemon feels pain, their person feels it too. To be away from each other, even for a few seconds, is unthinkable. Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon, usually takes the form of an ermine and helps her in many ways throughout the story. Of course, all of the other characters have daemons too, and they all work to help their people, whether their personal aims are good or evil. I liked the whole idea of this and found the inclusions of the daemons to be a very cool part of the story.

I went into reading The Golden Compass thinking I would probably enjoy it. Happily, that ended up being an understatement. There was a lot to like here and I was extremely impressed with the quality of the story and the depth of the world. This novel is a new favorite for me, and I sincerely hope that its creativity, uniqueness, and emotional storytelling continue on throughout the rest of the series. The story ends on a serious cliffhanger, and I'm very excited to pick up The Subtle Knife soon and find out how Lyra's journey continues.   

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 41/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 64