The Golden Compass

Rating:
Author: Philip Pullman
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. date: 1995 (read on Audible Sep. 2019)

The Golden Compass was a re-read for me. I started the series back when I was in University, but I never finished it because University is just a huge giant time suck that doesn’t allow you to read for pleasure. I read the first two books, but never got around to the final book.

I had heard lots of great things about the series and my husband raved about it, so I expected to love it, but ended up being very underwhelmed by it. I think I would have been unlikely to return to it had I not stumbled upon the full cast audiobooks and known there was a tv series coming out later this year. But I’m so glad I made a second attempt at the series because I have been absolutely loving it on Audible!

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to ours, but with some substantial differences. In this world, everyone has a daemon, which is a sort of animal companion that is bonded to you. Children’s daemon’s can change and take any animal form, while adults daemon’s eventually settle into one form. The story starts with our protagonist Lyra, a young girl whose age I can’t recall (let’s say ~10 or 11), hiding in the retiring room at Oxford and overhearing a very interesting discussion surrounding the concept of Dust.

Lyra is an orphan who grew up at Oxford, surrounded by scholars and street urchins. She’s a bold girl who’s not afraid to boss the other children around and has a terrible habit of lying. She doesn’t know what Dust is, but the scholars are fascinated by this Dust and are enthralled to learn that Lyra’s Uncle, Lord Asriel, has been able to photograph it in the North. Lyra’s curiousity is piqued and she becomes desperate to explore the North and see the Dust and magnificent aurora for herself.

At the same time, mysterious things are happening at Oxford and children start disappearing. To explain the disappearances, the other children blame the mysterious Gobblers, who are said to kidnap and eat children. Suddenly Lyra finds herself engulfed in the plot and travelling to the North to save her friend from the Gobblers and find out more about Dust and why everyone is so concerned about it.

The first thing I’ll say about this book is that I’m a bit shocked it’s a children’s book. I know children read all kinds of horrific stuff without being affected by it, but this book has some seriously crazy shit in it. But more impressively, it has a seriously convoluted plot, which is what impresses me more about it as a children’s book.

I will always maintain that the best children’s books are the books that appeal to both children and adults. The Golden Compass is definitely one of those books that is sold to children, but really targets adults. There are so many levels to the storytelling that it can really be enjoyed at any age. Children enjoy it for its strong protagonist and fantastical elements, like flying witches and armoured bears, while adults will enjoy it for its mature themes about religion and the church.

Yes, you read that right, the underlying themes of this book centre most prominently on the church and its power. Pullman explores other themes like the loss of innocence, morality, and the existence of souls, but at its core this is a book about the role religion plays in our society and how religious doctrine has snuck its way into our governments and legal systems.

The religious overtones are subtle for most of The Golden Compass, but it becomes more clear towards the end of the book where Pullman plans to take this series. There’s a great air of mystery throughout most of this book – what is dust, who are the Gobblers, what is the Magisterium doing – but once we start getting answers to some of these questions, it becomes clear how far the power of the church reaches. They have a great fear of sin, which causes them to commit unspeakable atrocities.

The church, or Magisterium, is strongly reminiscent of the catholic church, however, I think Pullman’s themes apply to really any branch of the christian church. I’m about halfway through the second book now (or I was at the time of writing this – I’ve since finished the series) and I do find Pullman a bit heavy handed at times, but sometimes exaggeration is required to make a point and do I think he makes several relevant arguments. The “church” in general is a very powerful institution, and no matter what religion you look at (christianity, islam, hinduism, etc), it has very much infused itself into modern governance. The question is, does the church belong in our governance systems?

Personally, I think no. The core message of most religious texts is simple – love others. If that was as much as we tried to infuse into our government, I’d say sure, but unfortunately the church is much more caught up in control, and that’s where it gets dangerous. The christian church in America (and yes Canada), is very caught up in controlling everything from women’s reproductive rights, to marriage rights, to access to healthcare, to scientific freedom, and what can be taught in schools. Then if you look further into institutions like the catholic church, they’re also interested in controlling families by keeping women out of positions of influence.

But why is the church so interested in this control? If your mandate is to love others, why does any of that other stuff matter. For me, everything that the right-wing christians are selling in America right now is about protecting the long held power and privilege of straight, white men.

One of the best ways that I think they do this is through misdirection. One example is the anti-choice movement. They would have us believe that they’re all about fetus rights and the sanctity of life, but it’s really about power and control. If the anti-choice supporters actually believed in the sanctity of life and protecting women and children, they would support access to birth control, healthcare, welfare, and sex education. There is no wealth and power without poverty and those in power want to maintain all the privileges they’ve become accustomed to.

But a lot of it leads back to this notion of “sin”. The church condemns women who want abortions as immoral, gay marriage as abhorrent, and science as the loss of faith. But this fear of sin is what drives the need to control it. Religion generally acknowledges that everyone sins, but all these additional rules and restrictions just make it that much easier to “sin”.  The theme of sin is only introduced at the end of The Golden Compass, but I’m interested to see where Pullman takes it in the rest of the series because the word “sin” means different things to different people and part of the problem is that we all have our own definition of what constitutes “sin”.

In Lyra’s world, the magisterium wants to eliminate sin from the world, and in their quest to do that, they cause incredible harm. Not unlike the way the church still alienates everyone who is different or who does not fit within their narrow view of what is “right”.

Anyways, I didn’t expect to get into such an in-depth discussion on religion, but these are issues that I do spend a lot of time thinking about. I do want to keep the ideas of the church (or organized religion) separate from spirituality though because I do think they are two completely different things. You can condemn the church as an institution, without condemning the idea of spirituality and the existence of a greater being.

So I did like this book a lot more on the second read through and I’m interested to see where Pullman takes these themes in the next two books. The full cast for this audiobook was fantastic. Lyra drove me nuts sometimes because she can be really obtuse and made a lot of stupid decisions, but she’s a child and she has a lot of spunk, so I can forgive her for that. Mrs. Coulter was deliciously evil, Lord Asriel enraging, and Iorek endearing.

But mostly what I liked was how wild the plot was. I truly never knew what was coming in this book. There were so many twists and turns and it had a huge amount of depth. I love stories that have a lot of balls in the air and maintain several different plotlines at the same time, while weaving an air of mystery under the whole story. Pullman did this very well and when we arrive at the conclusion of the novel, it really just feels like the beginning.

Murder in Mesopotamia

Rating: 
Author: Agatha Christie
Genres: Mystery
Pub date: 1936 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Hercule Poirot #14 (these books don’t need to be read in order)

Agatha Christie was a new discovery for me last year. I absolutely loved And Then There Were None and proceeded to read a few of her Hercule Poirot books. So far I haven’t been able to find a book that can compare to And Then There Were None, but it’s fun to jump into one of her classic closed room mysteries every now and then.

Murder in Mesopotamia is set on a dig in Iraq and is narrated by Nurse Leatheran, who has joined the archaeological expedition to support the dig leader’s wide, Mrs. Leidner, who has been becoming increasingly antsy. Mrs. Leidner is distraught and seems to fear for her life, but the rest of the expedition chalks it up to anxiety. Some odd things take place in the compound where the entire expedition is staying and when one of the household turns up dead, the local authorities recommend calling in Hercule Poirot (who is just returning from his ride about the Orient Express). What follows is a classic character examination of all of the members of the expedition and a study of means, method, and motivation for committing the crime.

I didn’t love this book as much as some of her others because I thought it was a bit slow to get going and there are a lot of characters, so it’s a bit hard to keep track of everyone. That said, much of what happens in the early parts of the book set the scene for the rest of the book and are important in solving the mystery. I really like Christie’s closed door mysteries because you know the killer is one of the individuals in the room, so you’re never sure who you can trust. I did think this one was somewhat predictable (I had it narrowed down to one of two people), but the question of how they got away with it was clever and I liked that the crime had several layers to it.

I don’t have much to say about the book overall, but I wanted to review it anyways since I didn’t review any of the Christie books I read last year and I’m bound to forget about this one pretty fast if I don’t. I have a few more Poirot books on my shelf that I’d like to get to and I’m also interested to read some of her Ms. Marple series. Does anyone have any specific Poirot or Marple recommendations?

Emma

Rating: 
Author: Jane Austen
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pub Date: 1815 (read June 2018 as an audiobook)
Audio Narrator: Nadia May

Whyyyy is this book so loooong?! This was my first Jane Austen and I really wanted to like it, but I feel like I just did everything wrong with this novel.

First of all, I listened to it in Audiobook, and while I did get a laugh out of the narrators british enthusiasm, I just couldn’t keep track of the characters or who was narrating. Plus it took me like 2 months to listen to and the plot is so low key that I kept forgetting what had happened before or who any of the characters were. So audiobook was probably a bad format for this one, but I’m still not convinced I would have liked it much better in print. There’s some classics I like, but a lot of them just make me feel bad and uncultured because they’re supposed to be good literature, but I just find them so unbelievably boring.

I do get it though. I can definitely appreciate what Austen does with this novel. She is very clever with her writing and her characters and I laughed a lot at Emma, although mostly just at how stupid she was. It’s a little mind boggling that this was first published all the way back in 1815. That is over 200 years ago and people are still reading this and the setting wasn’t even that different from today! There is definitely still a class of rich british aristocrats that get caught up in this gossipy matchmaker stuff and making sure that everyone sticks within their “class”.

I forget how old Emma is, but she lives at this english estate called Hartfield and goes about her life until she makes a new friend Harriet and endeavours to play matchmaker for her. Emma has decided to never marry herself and throws all her energy into her friendship with Harriet. Then there’s a series of hi jinx in which Emma repeatedly tries to set Harriet up with men who run in a much higher class than Harriet and she constantly misinterprets everyone’s intentions, even though she believes herself to be the highest and best judge of character.

Anyways, I may have enjoyed this more as a print book and even thought I didn’t really like it, I don’t really have much bad to say about it. I do get why this is a classic, I just personally struggled with the pacing and seeming lack of plot. I feel like not very much happened in this book, and yet it’s still almost 500 pages. So not a favourite from me, but it wouldn’t deter me from trying Austen again in the future (but NOT as an audiobook).

What’s your favourite Jane Austen book?