Monday, December 11, 2017

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

* * *

It seems amazing that this is our first venture into the works of Bangor’s most famous resident. Of course, as most of Mr King’s books are tomes of gigantic proportion, they are often too long to meet my criteria for nomination. I was looking for a diverse selection of Horror stories for our Halloween reading, and this fitted provided a nice alternative to all those vampires, ghosts, serial killers and ravening beasts.

Horror is a strange genre, in my opinion, because it can be difficult to predict what will be truly horrific. For example, I am much more upset when the victim is an animal, especially if it is a trusting domesticated one. I know that this is completely illogical, but it has stopped me reading books in the past; for example, Behind closed Doors by B. A. Paris, which involved the abuse of a puppy. However, I can be somewhat unmoved by the death and mutilation of humans, especially if they are disposable characters which the author sacrifices without even trying to get me emotionally attached to them. Some of the group could not cope with the physical aspects of Annie’s treatment of Paul and so did not finish the book, whilst I found it only moderately horrific. For me, the true horror was the way that Paul’s soul was slowly destroyed by the isolation and hopelessness of his situation.

The whole book is seen through Paul’s eyes, although there are a few sections where he imagines how events are unfolding in the outside world. He speaks to us in a stream of consciousness, so that we share thoughts and follow his dreams into some very disturbing visions. Perhaps it was this very intimate voice that made people highly uncomfortable reading Paul’s experience of Annie’s attacks. It was even more difficult to distance yourself from his pain because you were stuck in his head with him: and just as powerless to stop what was happening. Indeed, powerlessness is something that Paul experiences from the very beginning of the book, when Annie has to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He feels assaulted and invaded: describing it as rape even as it is occurring, before she has given him any reason to dislike or fear her. 

This first ‘assault’, dragging him away from the peaceful blackness of death, sets the scene for a series of attacks that become increasingly violent. At first it seems as if Annie, who is a trained nurse, is actually trying to help Paul to recover, but it soon becomes clear that she may never have intended him to leave. She splints his broken legs with no effort to set the bones in place, so that they are anything but straight and one is several inches shorter than the other. She also chooses to give him huge doses of an opioid whilst being totally aware that it is extremely addictive. All of this makes it surprising that she bothered to save him in the first place – especially as she did not know his identity until she checked his wallet. That she happens to be his ‘number one fan’ is pure coincidence, and one is left wondering what she might have done to him if he had just been a random person.

Of course, Annie’s adulation of Paul is cut short when she reads the latest Misery book and finds that her beloved character is dead. Paul is saved by his quick thinking exploitation of Annie’s desire to see Misery rise from the grave, and so begins his role as Scheherezade. At first he uses Misery’s Return as a way to postpone Annie’s decision to kill him, just as Scheherezade’s stories buy her night after night with the murderous king. However, it later becomes clear that Paul’s writing is also giving him a reason to live, so that he becomes Scheherezade to himself as he chooses not to commit suicide. Eventually, he values the book so highly that he decides to save it as part of his plan to escape captivity.

Sections of Misery’s Return are included in the text, and it should be noted that we all found them laughably awful! They are horribly melodramatic, with massively improbably plot lines, terrible dialogue and totally unlikable central characters. We all agreed that we would never want to read the book in its entirety. At the beginning of the book, Paul would probably agree with our assessment of the series: he hates it and resents its popularity in comparison to what he considers to be his more literary works. Of course, we have no idea if they are equally badly written, although it seems that Paul probably has an inflated opinion of his ability as an artist. He is genuinely shocked when there is little effort made to search for him until his car is found: it seems that nobody is really upset that he has gone missing. We wondered how much this reflects Stephen King’s opinion about his own work and value to society.

Annie Wilkes is possibly one of the best villains ever written and is especially creepy because she can appear very normal at times. Perhaps her ability to seem normal is what allowed her to remain undetected for so many years as she killed patients in her care, although it seems likely that she was also cunning enough to move on before suspicion led to hospitals to act against her. Interestingly, unlike that other famous serial killer, Hannibal Lector, she is not godlike in control of her environment: she seems to suffer from some form of mental illness, although we do not know if that caused her murderous behavior or is a symptom of it. I suspect that she is an amalgamation of many fans that have been ‘over zealous’ in their admiration of Mr King’s writings and is his way of telling fans that they have no say in what an author chooses to write.

For those with a strong stomach, I would heartily recommend this claustrophobic exploration of powerlessness and obsession. It will also make you much more careful when driving your lawn tractor!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Books for January

As I write this, the snow is drifting past the library windows with the promise of several inches to come. We have had surprisingly little snow and ice so far this winter, so I thought a few ‘cold’-themed books would be appropriate. The selections for the January meeting are The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Be careful what you wish for. A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning.

She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear. When she finds him, he is her opposite, a burning man whose breath can boil water and whose touch scorches. As an obsessive love affair begins between them, both are forced to hide their most dangerous secrets--what turned one to ice and the other to fire.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Meeting Schedule for 2018

We will meet at 6pm in the Business Centre on the second floor of the library

January 18th

February 15th

March 15th

April 12th

May 10th

June 7th

Books for December

After the horror of Halloween this month’s selections took their inspiration from Veteran’s Day. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell follows one of Arthur’s soldiers in this retelling of mythology whilst The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman recounts how non-combatants fought against the Nazis in occupied Poland.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

Uther, the High King, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the enemy at the gates, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere. Will the old-world magic of Merlin be enough to turn the tide of war in his favor?

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner, socializing, and, during rare moments of calm, piano concerts. Jan, active in the Polish resistance, kept ammunition buried in the elephant enclosure and stashed explosives in the animal hospital. Meanwhile, Antonina kept her unusual household afloat, caring for both its human and its animal inhabitants—otters, a badger, hyena pups, lynxes.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find inspiration when I am compiling the list of choices for the book group. One way around this is to pick a theme and use Goodreads to find suggestions: it has an excellent, searchable List feature compiled by its users. This has the great advantage of highlighting books and authors that I have never really noticed before, and in this case it led me to find this excellent debut title.

At the outset, the story seems rather predictable: two young girls go missing and the alcoholic, abusive father of one seems a good fit for role of the typical ‘Bad Guy’. However, there is much more going on in this seemingly peaceful neighborhood and crucial events in the past are slowly revealed as the search continues. Whilst we soon learn that Petra is the girl in true danger, the mystery of Calli’s selective mutism is almost as important to revealing the truth of why these events occurred. Following the multiple POV characters, we gradually piece together the disaster that is Calli’s home-life, which becomes ever more heartbreaking as we discover the depth of the abuse that she has suffered and witnessed. I do not want to discuss important plot points, but while some are pretty obvious, others are skillfully hidden until the answers are revealed.

Looking at the more negative reviews for this title, I saw that many people are highly critical of Calli’s mother, Toni. They see cowardice in her failure to protect herself and her children from Griff’s abuse and believe that she should have left long before this tragic event unfolds. We thought that this was a rather simplistic way to view another person’s life. It is clear that Toni was very much in love with Griff when they first set up home and that she knows that sometimes he can be a great father. She also knows that he is dangerous once he has consumed a certain number of beers, and will remove the children from the home when he gets to that point. We concluded that his job in Alaska also contributed to her inertia: because he only returned for short periods, she could always see a return to ‘normal’ in the near future and so was never pushed far enough to feel the need to leave him.

Perhaps more deserving of criticism was Louis, the police officer. His past relationship with Toni occupied far more of his attention than seemed reasonable in this situation. He and the other local police were rather lax in their investigation of the scene of the abduction and in finding some of the prime suspects. We were not sure if this was normal operating procedure, but I would have wanted someone else searching for my lost child.

Another point of criticism for us was the historical treatment of Calli’s mutism. Apart from Mr Wilson, the school counselor, nobody, not even her mother, uses writing or drawing as a mode of communication. The school is particularly appalling in its attitude to her, including one incident where she is punished for refusing to speak and Petra is punished for trying to communicate for her friend. With regard to Toni, we could understand that she might have been unwilling to push too deeply into the reasons behind the mutism, because she would then have to confront the unpleasantness of her relationship with Griff. However, we were generally appalled that nobody really expressed concern about what trauma had caused Calli’s psychological damage.

Indeed, the writer emphasized this damage by recounting Calli’s chapters in the third person, past tense. All the other POV chapters were given in the first person, present, so that we had a constant reminder of how badly Calli had disassociated with the world around her. It made it seem as if she were viewing her life as an observer, rather than a participant, as a way of defending her true self from the pain of experiencing her real life. Remembering that she was only seven years old made this all the more painful.    

This is a compelling exploration of domestic abuse and how different people respond to a horrific crisis. The group thoroughly recommends it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

This is the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

* * *

“Women are the ones who know what's going on,' she said quietly. 'They are the ones with eyes. Have you not heard of Agatha Christie?”

This is how Precious Ramotswe explains her decision to become the very first lady detective in Botswana. Indeed, it is easy to draw comparisons between Precious and Christie’s Miss Marple. Both operate in a small, village-like situation, relying on sharp observation and local knowledge to solve crimes. They are both underestimated by many people because they do not ‘look’ like the expected image of a detective, and they often use this to their advantage. However, to view this title as simply another cozy mystery is to underestimate the beautifully evocative way in which it depicts Botswana and its people.

Africa is a huge continent with a multitude of peoples and cultures, but we tend to get a very narrow view of it here in the West. Of course, this is mostly because news organizations fail to report peace and tranquility, especially when it occurs in other countries. We see the wars, famine, poverty, disease and corruption because they are deemed ‘news-worthy’ while the ‘feel good’ stories are restricted to local cats stuck in trees and the like. Then, of course, we tend to view Africa as one homogenous entity, forgetting that it is bigger than Europe, the US, China and India all added together and divided into 54 countries. The colonialism and exploitation of past centuries also acts as a lens to distort our view of the African peoples and their lives. For these reasons, it is a delight to read a book that presents the world view of a proud Motswana woman even though the author is a white British man born in Zimbabwe. It is clear that Mr McCall Smith has a deep love and respect for Botswana, where he spent several years helping to found the Department of Law at the University of Botswana in Gabrone.

The Botswana that we encounter here is a mostly peaceful, democratic place that has avoided some of the pitfalls of independence that still disrupt daily life in other African nations. Precious is very proud of this and attributes it to the influence of the first President, Sir Seretse Kharma, who placed emphasis on infrastructure, industry, education and corruption-free government. Because of the largely law-abiding populace, most of her cases are relatively benign: a wayward teenager with an overprotective father, a cheating husband, a stolen car, insurance fraud and a man abusing the tradition of supporting your family. Some of them are more serious, involving a missing husband or medical malpractice, but the most disturbing case is one that involves the kidnap and possible dismemberment of a young boy for muti (traditional medicine / witchcraft).

The range of cases reflects a ‘warts and all’ portrait of the country: Precious loves Botswana but is critical of many aspects of its people and attitudes. She sees tradition as mostly very important, but despises the use of muti and resents the sexism that she sees constraining women. Indeed, her attitude towards ‘men’ is rather negative and she tends to expect the worst of them. However, this is hardly surprising once we learn about her history with her husband, Note Makote, and we can see why she is jaded and cautious in trusting men that she does not know. In contrast, she has deep respect and love for several men that have earned her trust. Primary amongst these is Obed, her Daddy. We hear his story in his own voice, relating a horrifying story of working in the mines of South Africa, which took him away from home and also wrecked his lungs. He is a quiet, observant man who is devoted to his small family and an excellent judge of cattle. His gentle support allows Precious to blossom into a strong, independent woman with a sharp intelligence, a powerful sense of right and wrong and a burning desire to help others with their problems.

The other major male character in the book is Mr JLB Matekoni, the owner of Tlokwneg Road Speedy Motors. He is the complete opposite of Note in that he is much more like her father: gentle, careful and quiet. However, he loves her completely, has dreams where she is improbably naked, and his dearest wish is that she will agree to marry him. Given that she is a very strong-willed person, his more easy-going, passive attitude to life makes it very easy for her to walk all over him, something that may cause problems if they do marry in the future.

However, the success of this title rests firmly on the ample shoulders of Precious herself. She is a rather refreshing character, being very comfortable with herself and seemingly immune to the self-doubt that plagues so many female characters. She does not worry about performing as well as a man – she knows that she is superior to them! She is proud to be ‘traditionally built’ and pities thin women, although this possibly reflects cultural attitudes to the ideal woman in Botswana rather than her own personal indifference to fat-shaming. She looks at her world with positivity and love, enjoying life and feeling blessed to be living when and where she is. This is wonderfully uplifting and helps us to overlook her rather negative character traits. She is very quick to judgment, sometimes too quick, and that can lead her to incorrect conclusions. It also suggests a certain intolerance of other peoples’ decisions and preferences. She is also rather bull-like in her impatience to do things: she sometimes rushes in without really planning what she will do. Fortunately, she is quick-witted enough to change direction as needed, but a little more caution might be advisable.

It is no wonder that this series is wildly popular, with Volume 18 scheduled for publication later this year and a spin-off series of Children’s books recounting Precious’ first cases. If you want books to restore your faith in humanity and put a smile on your face, give the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency a try!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Books for November

Halloween = Horror!  This month we have a Gothic classic and our first Stephen King novel to provide our chills and thrills.   

Both titles are now available on the Nooks.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Misery by Stephen King

Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.

Annie wants Paul to write a book that brings Misery back to life—just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an axe. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Books for October

Now that the days are getting shorter my thoughts turn to falling leaves and curling up in a comfy chair with a good book and a steaming cup of cocoa. With that in mind, the suggestions for this month have a connection to trees or woods.

They are both now available for download to the Nooks.

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn's shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Calli's mother, Antonia, tried to be the best mother she could within the confines of marriage to a mostly absent, often angry husband. Now, though she denies that her husband could be involved in the possible abductions, she fears her decision to stay in her marriage has cost her more than her daughter's voice.

Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Desperate to find his child, Martin Gregory is forced to confront a side of himself he did not know existed beneath his intellectual, professorial demeanor.

The Woods by Harlan Coben

Twenty years ago, four teenagers at summer camp walked into the woods at night. Two were found murdered, and the others were never seen again. Four families had their lives changed forever. Now they are about to change again. For Paul Copeland, the county prosecutor of Essex, New Jersey, mourning the loss of his sister has only recently begun to subside. Cope, as he is known, is now dealing with raising his six- year-old daughter as a single father after his wife has died of cancer. Balancing family life and a rapidly ascending career as a prosecutor distracts him from his past traumas, but only for so long. When a homicide victim is found with evidence linking him to Cope, the well-buried secrets of the prosecutor's family are threatened.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.

* * *

Once upon a time there was a general assumption that adults read Adult books and only picked up Children’s books at bedtime to entertain their offspring. This all came to an end when a certain young wizard arrived on the shelves and adults got their very own edition so that they could read on the bus or the train without admitting that they were reading *gasp* Children’s Literature. Coupled with the rising popularity of the new YA genre, it has become increasingly acceptable for grown-up readers to openly admit that they enjoy books from the non-Adult part of the collection. Of course I am over-simplifying, but I know that Harry Potter was something of a gateway novel for me: having progressed to Adult books at a young age I had never before thought of returning to the Junior Library for my reading material. Authors like Philip Pullman have convinced me that the age of the intended audience is no indication of the excellence or seriousness of a piece of writing.

The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it is called in the UK) begins in the labyrinthine halls of Jordan College, Oxford, as our orphaned heroine, Lyra, sneaks into the Master’s Retiring Room, which is forbidden for non-Scholars and all females. Although this all sounds ordinary enough, we are introduced to a world that is subtly different from our own. The technology has a steam-punk feel to it, opium poppies are widely used by the Scholars and the social structures are built around the Magisterium, a theocracy that strictly controls most areas of life. However, the most significant difference is that all the humans in this world exist in two distinct bodies: a person and their daemon.

A person’s daemon is an external embodiment of their inner being. They are almost always of the opposite gender to their human and share their person’s level of intelligence and ability to communicate. They can act independently and we certainly see Lyra arguing with her daemon, Pantalaimon, quite a lot as he tries to stop her taking risks. During childhood, a person’s daemon can change shape and size at will, so we see Pan in a variety of forms as the situation demands. Once puberty arrives this ability to change is lost as the daemon ‘settles’ into a final form which heavily reflects the inner character of the person. It is noted that servants usually have dog daemons because they are loyal and follow instructions, while more unique characters are accompanied by suitably magnificent, vicious or sneaky daemons. Given this duality, it can be tempting to treat the characters and their daemons in this universe as separate individuals; however, I will continue assuming that Lyra is the heroine of the story even though Pan is with her every step of the way.

The exact nature of daemons, and their link to humans, is something of a mystery to the people of this world but one that is fundamental to this particular story. Once she is trapped in the Retiring Room, Lyra witnesses a presentation on a strange substance called Dust, which can only be seen using special equipment. Dust falls continually from the sky but is attracted to adults whose daemons have ‘settled’ but not to pre-adolescent children. Later, we learn that the Magisterium believes that Dust is a manifestation of Original Sin and are seeking ways to protect children from it. In order to do this they are taking unaccompanied children from the streets, leading to whispers of the ‘Gobblers’ hunting the poor neighborhoods. When Lyra’s friend, Roger, disappears she believes that the Gobblers are responsible and sets off to rescue him. In doing so, she begins a journey that will lead her into the frozen wastes of the farthest North and into the company of water-roving Gyptians, tribes of ancient witches, an American balloonist and a drunken armored bear.

During her journey, Lyra displays a fierce courage and a stubborn determination to help her friend, with her actions creating ripples of consequence that change the entire world. She is revealed to have a Destiny that could affect the whole of creation, in this world and all the others, however, she is less than perfect. Her disregard for rules, personal hygiene and ethical behavior is a problem for those who try to raise her. She is particularly adept at deceit and can create the most spectacular lies when the need arises. Whilst this allows her to overcome some highly dangerous situations, it is hardly a character trait that you would want young readers to emulate. Fortunately, Pan is a much more cautious character and he usually counsels against her most reckless and impulsive behavior.

As a hero, Lyra displays a prodigious amount of good luck, but is otherwise fairly normal, making mistakes and suffering like any other person. The only super-human power that she displays is her uncanny ability to use the precious alethiometer, a compass-like device that the Master gives to her. It has a series of images around the edge that can be used to frame any possible question and provide a truthful answer, although it usually takes a lifetime to master the framing of questions and the interpretation of answers. Lyra has an instant understanding of how to use the alethiometer and uses it to make some crucial decisions during her journey although the source of her gift is unknown at the end of this first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy.

As a small and uninspiring physical specimen, Lyra relies on other characters to provide her with money, resources and muscle. Perhaps the most memorable of her comrades is the entirely alien panserbjorne, Iorek Byrnison. When we first meet Iorek he is an armored bear stripped of his armor and forced to do manual labor for a small town, resorting to alcoholism to deaden the pain of his humiliation. In return for finding his missing armor, Iorek agrees to accompany Lyra on her quest to rescue Roger and gradually becomes her staunchest ally. Whilst the idea of having a ‘tame’ armored polar bear is always going to be appealing, Iorek is a favorite character because he is so well-drawn and non-human. There is nothing remotely cuddly about him, even though he is very furry: shortly after he regains his armor he kills a seal so that he can use its blubber to lubricate the various pieces and remove the rust. Although Lyra introduces him to the concept of deception, he remains totally alien throughout the series in both his thought patterns and attitudes.

We encounter a second non-human society in the tribes of witches that agree to aid Lyra. Although appearing as young and fragile women, they live to be hundreds of years old and so have a detached attitude towards the humans who live such short lives in comparison. Although they often fall in love with human men and have children with them, this is a source of great pain because the men wither and grow old so quickly and any male children will inherit their father’s short life span. As with the panserbjorne, the witches view the world differently from us, able to ignore the intense cold even though they wear little clothing and flying on branches of Cloud-Pine. The otherness of these and other peoples in the series adds a rich depth to Pullman’s universe, making it feel real and fully realized.

As might be expected in a Children’s book, Lyra is an orphan and initially distrustful of most adults. However, she is taken in by the beauty and generosity of Mrs Coulter and is happy to be taken away from boring Oxford and introduced to the excitement of sophisticated London. Unfortunately, Mrs Coulter is not all she seems to be and her behavior becomes increasingly creepy and cruel when Lyra continues to be unruly. Her daemon is an unnamed golden monkey that reveals a much more violent and uncaring personality lurking beneath the beauty. It is later revealed that Mrs Coulter is actually Lyra’s mother, which makes some of her behavior even more unpalatable. Throughout the series she remains a fascinating character who probably shows the greatest development as her love for Lyra begins to overwhelm her ambitions and sense of self-preservation. In many ways she reminds me of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter universe: a character that we despise initially but whose motivations are slowly revealed to be less evil than they appear at first.

Whilst I love this series and would encourage anyone to read it, I need to add a warning about the controversial aspects of the world depicted. These are not heavily addressed in the first book, although we are told that the witches have a prophecy about Lyra and her destiny to be a second Eve. However, as the series progresses we see Lord Asriel creating an army to fight a rebellion against Heaven itself, which can be reached through a window between parallel universes. Philip Pullman is an atheist so his depiction of the Authority / God may be appalling to some, although he has many supporters within various denominations of Christianity. The series discusses ideas of free will and personal responsibility whilst railing against the dogma of oppressing people ‘for their own good’. This is most clearly seen in the experiments that the Gobblers are conducting on the stolen children: whilst their intentions are to prevent the children from being subject to the effects of Original Sin, their methods are barbaric and horrifying.

In summary, I would recommend this series if you want a jolly good read that will entertain you and also alter the way you think about the universe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A grumpy yet lovable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

* * *

Working at the front desk of a library gives me a good indication of what books are ‘hot’ and, of course, patrons share their views. When this title became a permanent fixture on our hold shelf I started to take notice of the feedback and eventually came to the conclusion that it might be a good choice for the group. I am pleased to report that it lived up to the hype, unlike some other titles that I could mention.

Once we had settled on how to pronounce Ove (Oooh-veh) most of the group waxed lyrical about how much they loved this book. We liked Ove, who was so grumpy that he was almost adorable: imagine an angry Droopy and you get the idea. Our first encounter shows Ove raging at a computer salesman. He is rude and condescending, assuming that the salesman is incompetent because the two men are unable to understand one another: Ove has no idea about computers and is angry to be asked questions that make no sense to him. Somehow his vitriol is witty enough, and close enough to things we have all wanted to say out loud, that the scene is funny and endearing. We automatically feel a kinship with this man raging against a world that has had the audacity to change around him.

The following scenes are shockingly dark and immediately reveal the terrible sadness of Ove’s life on the day after he is forced into retirement. The ongoing story of his unwilling interactions with his neighbors is interwoven with flashbacks that show us the important, character-forming, moments of his past. This is a clever way to slowly reveal who he is and why he has become the desperately lonely and angry man that we meet at the beginning. It also makes him grow more complex and sympathetic as we start to see the brave, honest and caring man behind the fa├žade. Whilst most of us liked this structure it did fail some of the group who were too depressed by the darkest scenes at the beginning to continue to the lighter and more redemptive conclusion. 

Most of us recognized Ove from people we know. He comes from an era when men were defined by their jobs and skills, taking great pride in their ability to work hard and provide for their family. In Ove’s mind, a true ‘man’ can handle anything that is required of him and is self-sufficient in maintaining his house, car, garden, neighborhood and everything that entails. However, he does have one area of expected weakness: he shares that generation’s expectation of manly stoicism in the face of emotional upset and relies upon his wife to handle all their social interactions. This attitude is encapsulated in a wonderful scene that recalls his first meeting with his prospective father-in-law. The two men are incapable of socializing with each other until Ove offers to fix an old car: this proves his suitability as a potential spouse and wins the old man’s approval. They continue to communicate in grunts and gestures, but the bond of acknowledged competence is sufficient to keep the peace.

Whilst Ove consistently proves to be competent and dedicated, his life is a series of disasters. He suffers more than his fair share of bad luck and we finally come to understand that he has survived in spite of everything that the world has thrown at him. It is hardly surprising that he is bitter and paranoid: he has overcome loss and disaster again and again, building up a wall of indifference and spite to deal with life’s disappointments. A lifetime of experience has taught him to expect the worst of every person he meets and his unreasonableness is perfectly understandable once you see what he has lived through. He also carries a great deal of guilt and self-blame about some events that he thinks he might possibly have been able to alter if he had only acted in time. As is often true, he judges nobody more harshly than he judges himself.

Whilst the book contains a lot of humor it also deals with a wide range of very serious issues. Poor Ove has to endure many of them himself, although some afflict his family and neighbors. I do not want to discuss most of them because that will spoil the book for those who have not read it and lessen the emotional impact of certain revelations. One issue that is central to Ove’s hardships and salvation is that of the change to a more urbanized society. He sees the benefits of a simpler, more village-like, social structure where people are accountable to one another and work for the common good. In contrast, he is constantly frustrated by the faceless ‘men in white shirts’ in local government who refuse to bend rules or even make decisions because they have no personal investment in the outcome. He often resorts to breaking the rules in order to accomplish goals that seem obviously right to him and then is punished for his actions. This has left him bitter and disillusioned with the benefits of modern life.

This is a book that made me both laugh and cry, which is something of an accomplishment these days. I would recommend it for anyone who enjoys sniggering at someone having a good rant, but who also likes their reads to have depth and provoke serious thought about social issues.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world.

Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal. 

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One of our members suggested this title years ago when we were still sticking to works of Fiction. I have to admit that the title seemed a little strange and not very inviting so I rather forgot about it until I was actively looking for Non-Fiction titles to offer the group. At that point I read the blurb and thought that it could be an interesting read because we had just finished Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Of course, Will’s disability is purely physical and permanent, with no hope of recovery, whilst Elisabeth has the agony of possible recovery and mental fatigue to overcome. She does so in the most intriguing way.

The author recounts her experiences of falling ill during a trip to Europe in only the vaguest terms, which helps to convey how ill she was feeling at the time. She describes flu-like symptoms and I was rather shocked to discover that she was allowed to travel whilst she was so obviously ill. Of course, this was in the days before Swine Flu, Avian Flu and all the other horrors that have zipped around the globe courtesy of air travel. Somehow she makes it home and then does not recover as expected. We join her when she has already been bed-ridden for some time and has been moved to Maine to be cared for and, hopefully, recover.

We learn very little about the time before the snail enters her life, and not much more detail of her day-to-day existence once it arrives. We are not presented with lists of prescriptions, practical details or daily obstacles to normal existence, such as how she goes to the bathroom. Instead, everything is focused on her observations of the snail, an unintended visitor from the woods outside her window. Due to her mental fatigue and oversensitivity to sensory input, the snail’s slow and quiet life fits in to her own pace of living. At first she merely observes its behavior, but then she begins to interact with it and use it as a focus for her daily life. She cares for the snail in ways that she can no longer care for herself and is fascinated by everything it does. She follows its meanderings around her room and tries to improve its environment by providing it with a suitable home and food, delighting in its apparent enjoyment of mushrooms.

As we follow the snail’s progress the author includes information about its anatomy, physiology and behavior, all learnt once she had recovered enough to sit up and read. If there is anything you ever wondered about snails, this is the book to answer your question in a direct and easily understood manner. Whilst Elisabeth does not shy away from using biological terminology, she communicates scientific information very clearly and in a way that shows her total delight at the wonders of such a tiny miracle of nature. She is clearly overjoyed by the complexity and beauty displayed by such a supposedly boring and insignificant animal and wants to share that wonder with everyone who reads the book.

I found this delightful because it resonates with my own feelings about the natural world. I have always loved to understand why things do what they do, so I trained as a scientist, but my choice of Biology as my main area of study is directly linked to the sense of wonder I feel when I observe the details of the world around me. Yes, I am that strange person who is actually happy to see a live skunk foraging on the side of the road as I drive home from work (and posts about it on Facebook!). I am also the person who went to Vancouver Aquarium twice in one holiday because they had a newborn Beluga whale. Perhaps it is no surprise that I used to teach high school Biology and I am married to a professional biologist who is obsessed with keeping reptiles.
I find nature both wondrous and relaxing, especially when I can get outside and experience it, so being trapped inside is a nightmare for me. I was once badly injured in a car accident and could only move with great difficulty, but I could at least get outside into our garden for brief excursions. I would hate to be trapped in my bed for a prolonged period as the author was. Her confinement was made crueler because she could not even read or listen to music to pass the time and escape her immediate environment. However, she does not whine or moan about her situation, even though there is no promise of recovery. I found this inspiring and was profoundly happy to discover that she did eventually become able to go outside and say goodbye to her tiny savior.

Edited to: add this image of the Japanese edition cover with its amazing 'snail' marks in the dust jacket.