Whenever I hear about a controversial book my first thought is: “Oh! I need to read that one.” So when the media started making a fuss about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, I naturally put my name on the holds list. (Apparently, there are others out there that have the same impulse because I had to wait several weeks before I received my copy. ) Just in case you haven’t heard, the Catholic League (which is a organization who “Fights anti-Catholicism and is the US’s largest Catholic civil rights organization”) asked people to boycott the movie version of the book because is “bait” to get children to read Pullman’s books which they feel are anti-Catholic and anti-religious.
So far, I’ve only read The Golden Compass. The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife make up the remainder of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy . I found Compass to be a wildly imaginative tale full of fast paced action and adventure. The plot is simple - Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, set out on an adventure to save her friend Roger who was taken by the mysterious, child-stealing Gobblers and to return the golden compass to her Uncle Asriel in the frozen north. It is full of the elements that children love to read about: Lyra is alone in the world and must outwit the evildoers; she finds she has special powers to read the truth-telling golden compass; some adults are good and help her but they can only do so much, others are evil or simply stupid; good and evil are pretty clearly defined; and finally, who can resist talking animals? These elements are nothing new and if you think of many classic children’s books you will find they occur over and over again - orphaned Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Harry Potter, books by Roald Dahl or Edith Nesbitt all have some or all of those elements.
I found any religious references to be very subtle, and I’m not sure the average child would equate the Magisterium in the book with the Catholic Church. In fact, I’m not even sure I would have linked it if not for the objections of the Catholic League. The Magisterium comes across more as an authority figure or a menacing government entity that doesn’t really affect every day people, much like the Empire in Star Wars. I found a very thoughtful article in the The Boston Globe written by Catholic theologian Donna Freitas that presents an opposing viewpoint. She feels that the Catholic League’s intrepretation of Pullman’s books is a sad misreading and goes on to say:
These books are deeply theological, and deeply Christian in their theology. The universe of “His Dark Materials” is permeated by a God in love with creation, who watches out for the meekest of all beings - the poor, the marginalized, and the lost. It is a God who yearns to be loved through our respect for the body, the earth, and through our lives in the here and now. … The book’s concept of God, in fact, is what makes Pullman’s work so threatening. His trilogy is not filled with attacks on Christianity, but with attacks on authorities who claim access to one true interpretation of a religion.
Bottom line? The Golden Compass in an engrossing, imaginative story with some possibly controversial elements that older elementary school students and young teens will likely enjoy. Parents, it’s up to you to decide if you want them reading it or not, but my advice is to read it yourself first and make an informed decision - don’t let anyone else decide for you. Every child is different and every family has its own values and beliefs and this book may or may not be a good fit. Personally, I can’t wait to finish the series, but first I have to finish reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for the February 19th book discussion.
January 24th, 2008
I actually managed to get some reading done over the holidays, and so I’ll write one review containing three mini-reviews in the order that I finished them instead of an entry for each one. This order also happens to be my least favorite to most favorite.
The River Wife by Jonis Agee
Synopsis - The River Wife tells of Hedie Rails Ducharme, a new bride during the depression in the tiny Mississippi river town of Jacques Landing who struggles to understand her husband’s mysterious nocturnal outings. To pass the time, she reads the journals of the women who came before her and learns how their lives are all linked through One-Armed Jacques Ducharme, a notorious river pirate. The women include: The first wife, gentle Annie Lark who barely survived the infamous New Madrid earthquake of 1812; Omah, a free woman of color who is just as tough and smart as Jacques; Jacques’ second wife Laura, a conniving gold digger; and Little Maddie, Laura and Jacques’ daughter.
My thoughts: The things I liked about this book are: 1) The story-within-a-story aspect of the old journals. 2) The history surrounding the New Madrid earthquake and frontier life from a woman’s point of view. The things I didn’t like about the book are legion, so I’ll try to keep it to the most important things: 1) The sections that were supposed to be journal entries were written in the third person, so it wasn’t like reading a diary at all which leads to… 2) The transitions between segments were so abrupt (actually nonexistent) that I frequently couldn’t figure out who was speaking or what time period we were in. 3) I know this is supposed to be a historical novel and that women back then didn’t enjoy the same rights as today, but every woman in that book was victimized by a man at some time. Along with that, there is a terrible double standard - men are allowed to have affairs but women who do so much as look longingly at another are either cast out or murdered. Which leads to 4) It is very violent.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Synopsis: 60 year old Louis C. Lynch was born and raised in Thomaston, New York, and loves it with uncritical devotion. He looks back on his life as he and his wife of forty years, Sarah, prepare for a once in a lifetime trip to Italy to visit his old friend Bobby Marconi who is now a famous painter who calls himself Robert Noonan. This book is a careful character study of Lou, Sarah and Bobby, their growth, their secrets and their relationships with each other and their families. As with many of Russo’s books, the town is almost as important of a character as the people who live there.
My thoughts: A slow-paced, enjoyable book that makes you feel like you know and love these people by the time you are done. It’s a hard novel to describe because it is so character-driven with not a lot of plot, but basically if you like coming-of-age stories and stories of families you will like this book. I listened to it on CD (27 hours worth!), and Arthur Morey is an effective narrator, but there were some slow spots in the book that I found myself daydreaming through.
World Without End by Ken Follett
Synopsis: It’s the 14th century in Kingsbridge, England and there are rotten dealings going on at the cathedral. This medieval soap opera has underhanded dealings, mysterious secrets, power struggles, love triangles, murder and plucky characters who always manage to prevail by using their wits and tenacity. The story centers around Merthin, a brilliant builder; his love Caris, healer and daughter of a wool merchant; Caris’ cousin, the conniving Prior Godwyn; Sir Ralph, Merthin’s brutish brother; and Gwenda, a clever serf. Will Godwyn thwart Merthin’s building plans? Will Gwenda marry her true love? Will Ralph’s lust go unchecked? Read this book and find out!
My thoughts: Ken Follett usually writes thrilling action/suspense novels based on historical facts but this book is a little different. It has the same fascinating historical accuracy, but it is more of a sweeping saga with a vast cast of characters yet still a real page turner. It follows Follett’s earlier work, The Pillars of the Earth, but it is set two hundred years later so you don’t need to read Pillars to have a clear understanding. Overall, I really, really enjoyed it, but I had one problem with this book and that is with Follett’s puerile sex fantasies. I’m no prude normally and don’t mind sex in my books, but there were a couple of scenes in this book that I found truly distasteful. They both involved the character of Gwenda who is technically not raped, but rather the only way out of an untenable situation is to have sex with a man she finds completely loathsome or is terrified of. I’m not objecting to the situations, but Follett chose to write that she enjoyed it once she got going. What!?!?! I’m sure that’s what every rapist tells himself - “She really wants me” or “You might be saying ‘no’ but I know you really want it.” Next time, Ken, grow up and leave these violent fantasies behind and quit spoiling an otherwise terrific book.
January 7th, 2008