Yosemite, again

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Take a look, friends.  This is beautiful Hetch Hetchy, the source of the best-tasting tap water on earth.  Say what you will about the environmental impact of damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it sure is beautiful there.

And here is the O’Shaughnessy Dam, with a bonus rainbow.  It’s not nearly as big and impressive as the Hoover Dam, but the scenery around it can’t be beat.  But then I’m partial to all things Yosemite.  IMG_8020.JPG

Have a good week, everyone!

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A Review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player One Cover Image

I didn’t time my review of this novel with the weekend of its film adaptation’s release on purpose. I started this book in December but put it down after a hundred pages for some reason, in spite of the fact that I was mostly enjoying it. I picked it up last weekend and was able to get re-invested in it quickly, but I didn’t know until two days ago that the movie was coming out yesterday. You didn’t KNOW? one of my students asked. How is it possible not to know?

Of course, on many levels this book is Not My Thing. Not My Thing at all. My reaction when I first learned of its premise years ago was something along the lines of puh-lease. A novel about a fictional video game based on the pop culture of the ‘80’s? It sounded like the sort of thing a Baby Boomer would write – or, more specifically, the sort of thing many Baby Boomers did write: all the Woodstock-worshipping, appalled-by-Nixon, I-remember-where-I-was-when-Kennedy-was-shot tripe that has been making me puke since The Wonder Years – and the idea of an author of my own generation jumping on this bandwagon was disappointing. And before I go on and explain why I really did enjoy this novel quite a lot, let me just mention one thing that no one else talks about when they talk about Ready Player One: when they say that this book revolves around ‘80’s pop culture, what they really mean is that it revolves around ‘80’s BOY pop culture. No joke: in all of this novel’s 372 pages, there is not a Cabbage Patch Kid in sight. Not a single fucking Care Bear.

Have you noticed that women don’t memorialize the ‘80’s as much as men do? Boys had Star Wars and heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and Knight Rider; we had Get in Shape, Girl! and Pretty Cut ‘n’ Grow and Punky Brewster. I never really thought about it until now, but the ‘80’s were kind of a shit decade to grow up in if you were in possession of Fallopian tubes. Someday when I have infinite time and resources, I might try to write a parody of Ready Player One where a female video game designer decides to create an infinitely complex virtual world based on her childhood in which players can compete for wealth and world domination, but even with those high stakes no one wants to play because doing so requires one to memorize which Strawberry Shortcake character smells like which fruit and consistently keep straight the names and personalities of the Sweet Valley Twins’ clichéd friends.

What this novel does really well, in all seriousness, is dystopian world-building. This is the reason to read this novel even if the ‘80’s video-game premise doesn’t appeal to you. There is no shortage of dystopian fiction out there, and all of it gives me an icky feeling in my stomach these days, this novel included. The protagonist, Wade Watts, is an orphan who lives in “the stacks” – a housing project in Oklahoma where RV’s and other mobile homes are stacked precariously on some scaffolding, forming a terrifying new incarnation of the high-rise. He lives with his aunt and her boyfriend, and he sleeps in the laundry room, his circumstances not too different from those of Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs.

The year is 2044. The U.S. economy has fallen flat, and like most people in his world, Wade spends most of his time inside the OASIS, an all-encompassing virtual-reality world that is clearly meant to have evolved from both today’s video games and today’s social media. By the time the novel starts, the OASIS has expanded to include public schools (Wade attends school using a VR headset, crouched in an abandoned pickup truck in a junkyard that he thinks of as his “hideout”) and has its own economy and currency. Wade’s real-world life is claustrophobic and smothering – and limited by the fact that he has no money and no support system – while in the OASIS people who can afford to do so jet from planet to planet on a variety of fantastical space vehicles. The creator of the OASIS was James Halliday, who embedded a contest into his VR world that was launched after he died. Whoever follows a series of clues to find the “Easter egg” Halliday hid in the OASIS will win some unfathomable amount of money and inherit control of the OASIS. Halliday is sort of a Steve Jobs figure – brilliant and bold in his designs but socially maladjusted and self-destructive in his personal life – and it amuses Halliday to force everyone who wants to be rich and powerful to study every last detail of every movie, TV show, song, and video game that he loved as a child.

This novel follows a standard “quest” narrative structure: there are three of everything, the villains are horrifically over the top and awful, and it is clear from the outset that the hero will win the contest in spite of the impossible odds he faces. There’s even a “descent-into-hell” component that takes the form of a terrifying foray into the world of corporate indentured servitude, which is how debt of more than $20,000 is handled in 2044. And as in most quests, the “real” reward is not the money and power that come from finding the stated object of the mission but some other intangible and unexpected prize that emerges from this journey; in Wade’s case, this takes the place of real-world love – a prize that seems almost impossibly rare in the world of the stacks and the OASIS.

I’ve mocked this novel more than I’ve praised it, but most of the mockery was in jest. I did enjoy this book – the characters are well-drawn, the plot manages to surprise occasionally while also adhering to form, and Cline’s vision of a dystopian near-future U.S. will intrigue you even as it gives you the willies. I recommend this book even to people like me who never played Pac-Man or D&D; this is a novel that transcends its subject matter. I suspect I missed a lot of inside jokes and private references to video games, of which I know almost nothing (I got most of the movie and TV references, I think), yet I still enjoyed the book and felt a connection to its characters.

Posted in Ernest Cline, Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - SciFi, fiction - thriller, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A PfP PSA (by Jill)

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When one is doing laundry, always double check the washer for books, especially signed first edition Indiespensible hardcover books, prior to hitting the Start button.  There was green lint from the cover on every single article of clothing in this load.

Incidentally, the book was not being stored in the washer (I don’t have that many books).  I put it in my laundry basket so save myself a trip down the hallway, and then started doing other things, and by the time I got around to starting laundry I had forgotten it was in there.  I blame early onset dementia, or possibly just being overtired from a very busy work week.

We may have more PfP PSA’s in the future if we manage to so more absolutely ridiculous things to our own books, but hopefully this will be the last picture of a washed book we post.

 

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A Review of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (by Jill)

mr. Splitfoot cover

 

I had a feeling this was going to be a weird book just based on the name.  It was Indiespensible #57 from back in February of 2016, which means that I’m managing to stay less than two years behind on my Indiespensible pile.  Some day I’m going to take a month off work and refuse to leave my house and try to avoid sleeping and get some serious reading done.  But until then I’ll just keep plugging away on my piles of books.

Oh, so my feeling about the book being weird was right on.  But it was sneakily weird.  It started weird, then got less weird, then the end was super weird.  For some reason ghost stories dressed up as literary fiction rub me the wrong way.  Either be fantasy or be regular fiction, don’t try to be both, I think is my feeling.  But that’s wrong too.  Books like this one rub me the wrong way.  I’ve read, and loved, plenty of literary fantasy books before, like all of Deborah Harkness’ books, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which is, without a doubt, the best example of the modern literary ficton/fantasy genre, or if not the best, at least the first one I can think of outside of like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and that ilk.  I think it’s just books that give me the impression that they are being weird just for the sake of being weird that bug me.

This novel has two time lines: one present day told in first person by Cora, a girl who finds herself pregnant and single in her mid-twenties.  She seems an average sort of person, who loves social media and has an okay job.  The other story is told at some point in the past, probably fifteen or so years prior to the present day timeline, and tells the story of Cora’s aunt Ruth and her friend Nat.  Cora’s mom and aunt were raised in a foster home run by the Father and the Mother, who are not great people but not bad enough to warrant more of a brief mention here.  Cora’s mom ages out at eighteen and leaves her much younger sister alone at the foster home.  Explanations for why El never picks up her sister are never given.  Ruth latches onto Nat, also her age, once El leaves, and says he is her new sister.  Their relationship is close but always platonic, and a little weird.  Nat says he can talk to the dead, so he and Ruth set up a little business with the kids at the school.  Eventually they hook up with Mr. Bell, who is a con artist in town, and they make a lot of money with their little show.

Meanwhile, back in the present day, Cora is still pregnant and alone, and then her aunt Ruth shows up, and for some reason she doesn’t speak anymore.  Cora met Ruth and Nat once, when she was fourteen.  They came to visit El and left after one night.  Ruth and Cora take off in Cora’s car, but when it breaks down, they just start walking.  Somewhere.  Cora never quite knows where, but they walk for a long time, always heading somewhere, for the entirety of her pregnancy.

There’s a guy who snorts Comet and wants to marry Ruth, but his nose falls off and she loses interest.  There’s a religion called Ether, which is a hybridization of many other religions as well as a few songs from the seventies.  There are ghosts, real and imagined.  And looking back on it, some of the weirdness is charming and beautifully written.  Take this for example, wherein the author describes Cora going cold turkey off technology after the car breaks and she and Ruth start walking.  “The first two days without a phone, my insides are jumpy and nauseated, a true withdrawal.  My veins ache for information from the Internet, distractions from thought.  I’m lonely.  My neck, lungs, blood hurt like I’m getting a cold.  The world happens without me because I’m exiled with no Wi-Fi.  I wonder if my shoes have arrived yet.  Maybe Lord [that’s the boyfriend] is trying to reach me with news of his divorce.  I have a parasite of grotesque urges.  I want to push little buttons quickly.  I want information immediately.  I want to post pictures of Ruth and me smiling into the sun.  I want people to like me, like me, like me.  I want to buy things without trying them on.  I want to look at photos of drunk kids I knew back in high school.  And I want it all in my hand.  But my cyborg parts have been ripped out.  What’s the temperature?  I don’t know.  What’s the capitol of Hawaii?  I don’t know anything.  I don’t even know the automated systems in my body anymore.  I don’t know how to be hungry, how to sleep, to breathe (70).”

There are many, many beautiful and good things about this book, but there are also weird and not so good things about it.  I don’t think it’s a book for everyone, though I will admit that other than the “weird for the sake of being weird” vibe I got off and on while I was reading it, generally it was quite well-written, but folks who like pure literary fiction or pure fantasy may not be able to get into it.  And here’s one complaint: if the name of the book is going to be Mr. Splitfoot, perhaps Mr. Splitfoot should play a more prominent role.

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A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife

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This review contains what the young people call “spoilers.” Read at your own risk.

 The second installment in this trilogy is my favorite, I think. In this book – which is also the shortest of the three – we learn or intuit a great deal more about why Lyra’s world is so weirdly skewed and about how the various plot lines that began in The Golden Compass fit together. The first chapter is about Will Parry, a character who is not part of The Golden Compass. Will is fourteen, and when we meet him, he is trying to persuade his piano teacher to let his senile mother live with her so he can protect a green briefcase and fight off the thugs who keep breaking into his house to try to steal it. In the opening chapter, he kills one of these intruders, meaning that the police will soon be looking for him.

It took remarkably long for me to get oriented in Will’s world. I think I read most scenes in the first two chapters two or three times. At some point, I stopped, stunned: This is the REAL world, I realized. No one has daemons. Lights are electric, not anbaric. People use cars and phones and the standard forms of technology in use in 1997, when this novel was published. At this point, I was riveted – I knew from the back of the book that Will’s story would join Lyra’s at some point, and I was extremely curious about how this would happen. I’ll fill you in – but first I need to give you a little more backstory about what happens at the end of The Golden Compass.

If you recall from my recent review of The Golden Compass, Lyra travels to the far north in the company of various “gyptians,” hot-air balloon operators, witches, and talking bears in order to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers. As Lyra learns, the Gobblers are not the band of outlaws she originally thought they were: they are actually an organized body that is affiliated with the mainstream church, which in Lyra’s world is all-powerful and is based on the teachings of John Calvin. The “GOB” in their name stands for “General Oblation Board,” and Lyra’s biological mother, Mrs. Coulter, is a high-ranking official within this organization. One of her many projects is an experiment about severing children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of people’s souls in animal form, so separating them from their bodies is no small or inconsequential process. The process involves putting the child and the daemon in separate cages and using a special tool that can really cut anything (more on this in a bit) to sever the ethereal bond between them. Children who have been “severed” are deeply traumatized and disoriented. When Lyra meets a severed child, she is deeply upset; the human/daemon bond in her universe is so sacred and deep that the idea of severing the two violates her world’s greatest taboo. Lord Asriel’s reason for wanting to sever one child from its daemon is not cruel in nature; he wants to access the enormous burst of power that takes place when this severing happens. The science doesn’t hold up, of course, but I picture it as sort of like the splitting of the atom (as far as I’m concerned, the science of that doesn’t hold up either, though I suspect I am mistaken).

Anyway, Lord Asriel succeeds – he severs Roger from his demon, killing him in the process – and in the process he opens a portal into another world. Lyra walks into that other world, and it is in a city called Cittàgazze in that other world that Will meets her. Cittàgazze is a weird, creepy, powerfully-imagined place inhabited only by children, and over time we learn that this world is tormented by creatures called Specters, who seem very similar to Dementors. Specters only attack adults (they feed off Dust, which is the physical manifestation of original sin), and they essentially suck out their souls, leaving the adults unable to care for anything. For that reason, children in Cittàgazze basically wander around in packs, looking for food and being kind of shell-shocked. Will, who reached Cittàgazze when he was following a cat and then saw the cat disappear into a weird “hole” in the air – a hole that seemed to him like a convenient way to escape from the thugs who were chasing him – eventually kills a man in a tower who is defending a special weapon, the “subtle knife” of the title. Because the subtle knife can only be wielded by the person who has won in in a fair fight (The wand chooses the wizard, Harry…) Will is now the rightful owner of this weapon. Two of his fingers are cut off in the fight, in precisely the way that fingers are always cut off in a battle for the subtle knife (this appears to be the price for ownership), and Will spends much of the novel bleeding profusely before being healed by a talking bear. The subtle knife can truly cut anything – meaning that it can sever bodies from daemons (and yes, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter want it for this reason, a lot) and also cut little windows between worlds like the one that the cat led Will through. And oh yeah: there is one more thing the subtle knife can do. It can kill God.

Killing God – known in these novels as “the Authority” – is ultimately Lord Asriel’s goal. Because Lyra’s world is based on the theology of the Protestant Reformation, its God is a dictator who uses his power to repress anyone he feels threatened by. Pullman doesn’t go into a ton of detail about exactly who and what the Authority represses, but certainly the fact that women are subservient to men in this series (most women; Mrs. Coulter has found her way to significant power and influence, as a small handful of women always did in all eras of male-dominated history) is part of the injustice Lord Asriel is fighting. They also seem to be fighting God for purely philosophical reasons – they are throwing off a tyrant because throwing off a tyrant is a good thing in itself. Much of The Amber Spyglass – the next volume in the series – is a huge angel war that is sort of a follow-up to Lucifer’s rebellion against God in the far-distant past (there’s the Paradise Lost connection again).

It also becomes clear in this installment that part of the organizing principle of this fantasy series is quantum mechanics. Quantum theory says that every time a person makes a choice, they leave behind the chance to make a different choice, so the possibilities inherent in their own world become narrower, but an alternate universe is formed, and the alternative choice becomes the basis of that universe. With all the decision-making humans out and about in the world, this theory becomes an especially baffling way to contemplate infinity. It also explains some of the many differences between Lyra’s world and Will’s (which is also ours). John Calvin became pope in Lyra’s world, cementing Protestantism as the dogma of the entire Christian world and causing history to veer away from the real-world timeline we are familiar with. Along the way, while our own ancestors figured out how to harness electricity, Lyra’s developed “anbaric” power – an alternate way to provide man-made light and power. Quantum theory doesn’t explain talking bears, but overall it is satisfying as a unifying principle, and once I figured out what Pullman was going for here, I began to enjoy the series even more.

So much is compelling in this novel on an emotional level. Lyra’s puzzlement at how Will can survive without a daemon (she eventually figures out that his daemon lives inside him). Will’s reunion with his biological father, who has been a known quantity in this series since the very first chapter of The Golden Compass, though he is well hidden. The deep pathos of the children of Cittàgazze. Various witches enacting revenge plots against old lovers in the midst of everything. A new character named Mary Malone who has also devoted her life’s work to studying “Dust,” though from a perspective quite different from Lord Asriel’s. Will’s terrifically sad relationship with his mother. The never-ending host of fantasy creatures. I remain baffled as I wonder what children make of this series (I mean, if you were ten, what would you make of this sentence: “Ruta Skadi lived so beautifully in her nerves that she set off a responding thrill in the nerves of anyone close by”?  I don’t even know what to make of it myself (is it about spontaneous orgasms?), though I think I have known women like this), and I was 100% hooked throughout this novel. I am not quiet finished with The Amber Spyglass, though it too is intriguing, and I will return to tell you about it soon.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - Children's, Fiction - Fantasy, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Young Adult, Philip Pullman, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend (by Jill)

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Sometimes a bookblogger just needs to read something silly and fun.  I’m not sure if I have much more to say about Kevin Kwan’s two pop-lit novels than that they were silly and fun, but I’ll try.  Shout out to my old college roommate, Lauren, for insisting that I read these books.  They brought some levity to my overworked and exhausted brain at the end of 2017.

Plot-driven novels are always a challenge for me to review because I find myself falling into the plot summary trap.  I’m going to try to avoid that here.  Crazy Rich Asians opens with Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young, a millennial couple living in New York City.  Both are professors at NYU, Rachel in economics and Nick in history.  When the book opens, Nick invites Rachel to come to Asia with him for the summer.  He is from Singapore, and his best friend Colin is getting married in June, and the plan is to bum around Asia for the rest of their summer break.  Rachel is a bit trepidatious about the big trip, and about meeting her boyfriend’s family, but Nick reassures her it will be just fine.  He leaves out the bit about how his family is crazy rich, like so rich that the regular wealthy people don’t know who they are because they can afford to keep themselves out of the press and keep their private lives private, which is a concept that is strange in foreign in this day and age.  Not surprisingly, things do not go as Nick and Rachel hoped.  There are shenanigans with Nick’s parents, side plots with Nick’s cousins and their families, so many descriptions of food that I wanted to eat Chinese food almost constantly while I was reading this book, and so many funny footnotes explaining the intricacies of Singaporean society.  Definitely a light read, but a fun one.  There were so many clothing brands thrown out there that I had never heard of that I didn’t believe that they existed, so I googled a few.  They exist.  The reason why I don’t know about them is because they, like the Young family, are out of my price range.

The sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, still has Nick and Rachel at the center, but the story spirals away from them, and I felt like that was a mistake on Kwan’s part.  We find out at the beginning of the sequel that Rachel’s father, long thought deceased, is actually very much among the living, and is an extremely wealthy businessman in mainland China.  Rachel’s mother and father met and fell in love when she was married to another man (a bad one), and she fled China when she learned she was pregnant to start a new life with her daughter.  There’s much more to it, but remember how I said I wasn’t going to get bogged down in plot summary?  Anyway, Nick’s busybody mother Eleanor figures all this out, and then insinuates herself into the Bao family’s good graces.  Rachel’s half brother Carlton is in a huge car accident in London, and the family goes to Singapore for his recuperation.  Rachel’s father learns of her existence from Eleanor, and insists that she and Nick spend their honeymoon in China.  One would think that our protagonists would have figured out after their last trip to Asia on vacation that this was not a good idea, but alas.  So the Young’s get to Asia, and end up spending a lot of time with Carlton, and his girlfriend/friend Colette Bing, the China Rich Girlfriend of the title.  I think.  The other suspect is Kitty Pong, a minor character from Crazy Rich Asians who is trying to fit into this crazy rich world but is failing miserably.  Neither woman is especially likeable, and I really feel like Rachel and Nick turned into the straight men for Colette and Carlton’s crazy rich antics.  There’s only so much snooty entitled rich people talk I need to hear in one series of books.  That being said, “rich” is in the title of both books, so I guess I had fair warning.

In summary, these books are fun light quick reads with several likable characters and several who are so awful that I really hope people like them don’t exist in real life.  The characters in the second book were over the top; I suspect this was purposeful and meant to be satirical, but it was maybe too much so.  I’m hoping that the third book in the series, Rich People Problems, which came out a few months ago, will be more focused on Nick and Rachel and how they fit into the crazy rich world, or potentially on Nick’s cousin Astrid and her family.  I liked them too.  Colette Bing and her signature scent in her home and Eleanor Young’s constant meddling (by the way, does anyone else feel like the word “meddling” has taken on much more sinister connotations in the past year?  Thanks for that, Russia.  Or whoever.  I’m not trying to make political statements here; I’m just trying to write about obnoxious rich people.) in her son’s life are definitely things I can do without the next time around.

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A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass cover image

Recently I was reminded of a core truth: teachers don’t read much in the fall. Nor do we blog, as you have seen. Come to think of it, my blogging life began within days of my resignation from full-time teaching in 2012., and I don’t think that was a coincidence. The kind of thinking that goes into reading and writing seriously about the books I read is not entirely compatible with my current lifestyle of simultaneously grading three sets of quizzes, negotiating foursquare disputes, wondering how the sixth graders know so much about cockfights, trying to figure out where the broom is, and explaining to a ten year-old how it’s possible to survive with only one kidney. Not much is compatible with that lifestyle, honestly. I am 42 years old and have been teaching in some capacity or other for twenty years, but I am living the first-year teacher experience all over again. It is maddening and humbling and wonderful.

So at the moment Jill and I are in the room where it happened – specifically, the Panera in Vacaville, CA where we launched Postcards from Purgatory in 2012 – trying to resuscitate this blog before it dies for good. Airway, breathing, circulation. Two rescue breaths. Soon we will be interviewing current and former U.S. senators who might be interested in performing some chest compressions.

I’ve been interested in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for at least a decade, ever since I learned it was based on Paradise Lost, but for some reason the first few pages always pushed me away when I tried to read it. Now that I’ve read the whole thing (plus all of the first sequel and most of the second), I can’t quite imagine what put me off. I mean, Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen has about everything a first sentence is supposed to have: introduction of protagonist, mysterious element (the “daemon”), and a clear action that is also symbolic of the plot of the book as a whole, a plot that involves sneaking and being on the run in all kinds of situations that can be described as “darkening.” But whatever. Mulling over why this book didn’t engage me much in the past will take precious time away from explaining why it did draw me in this time, and precious time is not something I have in large quantities any more.

So in Lyra’s world, a daemon is a person’s soul, and it takes animal form. Children’s daemons can change form based on their emotions or on the needs of the moment; for example, a daemon that is afraid and wants to hide can become a mouse and hide in its person’s clothing, while a daemon that is aggressive and wants to fight can become a tiger or eagle. Adults’ daemons take a fixed form, and in this world, the settling of a daemon into one form is an important sign of the end of childhood – and the end of childhood is of great importance in this trilogy that is, among other things, about original sin. Lyra’s daemon’s name is Pantalaimon, and in the opening scene he is a moth.

In the opening scene, Lyra, who is ten years old and lives a semi-orphaned existence at an Oxford that differs in some important ways from the real-world institution that bears the same name. I was fascinated with the process of trying to piece together the weirdnesses of this world. In some ways, the novel seems to be set in the Reformation – which is consistent with the fact that this series was inspired by Paradise Lost – but not all details support this hypothesis. The Oxford of this novel is decidedly low-tech in most ways, though there is something called “anbaric power” that seems to exist in place of electricity (we learn more about it in The Subtle Knife), and in the opening scene a guest arrives bearing startling news from the far north, documented by what seems to be some very advanced forms of photography. Because I’ve read the sequels, I now know what Pullman’s overall vision is and how this Oxford fits into it, but I’ll hold off until it’s time to review the sequels.

In the opening scene, Lyra and Pantalaimon hide in a wardrobe (Narnia allusion, I wondered? Figuratively speaking, this moment does eventually lead Lyra to an alternate universe) in an Oxford study in which they were snooping when some college officials unexpectedly arrived. The officials are awaiting a guest named Lord Asriel, whom they are planning to serve some poisoned wine. Lyra is able to warn Lord Asriel – her uncle – about the plot, and he spills the wine instead of drinking it. Lord Asriel is the one who brings the sophisticated photographs – photographs of people whose bodies are surrounded by a substance called “Dust.” The Oxford dons are intimidated by Dust, and it is this discovery of Lord Asriel’s that made them want to kill him.

So let’s flash forward. One of Lyra’s friends – a servant in the Oxford kitchens named Roger, sort of a human house elf – is kidnapped by “Gobblers,” a band of semi-legendary criminals known for snatching children, and to find him Lyra enlists the help of some “gyptians,” a gypsy-like group of wanderers who live in riverboats. Then Lyra is called into the study of one of the dons, told that she needs to go live with a mysteriously seductive woman named Mrs. Coulter and also given a device called an alethiometer. The alethiometer tells its bearer the true answer to any question, but it does so in a language of symbols that most people can’t understand. Lyra, however, has a mysterious ability to understand the symbols intuitively. Eventually Lyra overhears conversations that lead her to believe that Mrs. Coulter and her associates are the Gobblers, so she runs away and takes refuge with some gyptians, who are headed off to the far north to retrieve Roger, who is being held captive there.

Because it’s been a while (about two months) since I read this book, I am not entirely sure that I’ve gotten these details in the right order. I’m going to hold off on more plot summary except to tell you that we learn more and more interesting things about daemons, and there are witches and hot-air balloons and talking bears. We also learn that in Lyra’s world John Calvin was once pope (what???), and it becomes clear, at least a little, what Pullman is saying about Reformation theology. I enjoyed the novel – and the series – a lot, though I can’t fathom what its intended audience – ten year-olds(!) – would make of it (and I have a high opinion of ten year-olds, in general). But since I have a captive audience of ten year-olds (and 11-14 year-olds too) at my disposal five days a week, sometime soon (probably next year) I am going to try to find out.

More soon on the rest of the trilogy. Happy Saturday, everyone!

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