His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.

August’s Books Part One

Books read in August

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Made in Heaven by Adele Geras
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert

I started August reading The Crooked House by Agatha Christie, which I had borrowed from the library. It’s been a long time since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I felt like reading something quick and easy after some of the long books I’ve read this year. This is a short book and an easy read, but enjoyable because I didn’t have to think too much and I guessed the murderer’s identity. Sometimes that’s annoying but in this instance I found it satisfying to spot the clues along the way – and be right.

Agatha Christie described this as “one of my best.” Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot feature in the book and as my current knowledge of Christie’s books are from the TV programmes I found this a refreshing change. That’s not to say I dislike Miss Marple and Poirot – on the contrary I avidly read and enjoyed many of the books featuring these two characters and love both Joan Hickson’s and David Suchet’s performances and the productions as a whole.

Aristide, the head of the Leonides family has been murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. It seemed that they were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion, but things are not what they seem. His young widow, fifty years his junior, is the obvious suspect. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of Sophia, the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

Next up was Adele Geras’s Made in Heaven. It’s a story that pulls you along – even though I could see where it was heading and the ending was no surprise. The main themes of the book are marriage and divorce and relationships. A traditional wedding is being planned between Zannah and Adrian. The story opens with the lunch that has been arranged so that Zannah’s parents can meet Adrian’s mother and stepfather. Zannah wants a perfect, elaborate and very expensive wedding, to make up for her first wedding in a Registry Office, which ended in divorce. She knows exactly what she wants – the dress, flowers, church, reception and so on. The first problem that arises is the strange behaviour of Joss, Zannah’s mother, on meeting Adrian’s parents and everything goes downhill from then on, from her relationship with Adrian and Cal, her ex-husband to that of Adrian with Isis, Zannah’s daughter. Obviously there is a secret that will eventually surface and cause complications all round.

The characters are believable and the analysis of their relationships is good, so much so that I found some of the characters exasperating. The descriptions of the wedding preparations, the homes and garden, the beautiful dress materials, the sumptuous, delicious food bring the book to life, although I found it intriguing that one of the locations is Altrincham. I used to live near Altrincham and went to school there, but apart from the name I didn’t recognise it in this book – but then that wasn’t important in terms of the plot. However, I did get quite excited when “Altrincham” was mentioned as I’ve never come across it in fiction before and wanted more detail.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman and Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert are much longer books.

I found all of them to be satisfying and excellent books. I’ve already written about Season of the Witch here. The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and I’ll write a separate post about all three books.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a contrast to the other books. The story is narrated by a boy who leaves California to attend a college in New England and becomes involved with a group of students studying ancient Greek. From the back cover:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

There is a death recounted in the prologue. The book then goes back in time and the mystery unfolds. I found it just a bit too long and drawn out in parts and wanted to wind it up before it actually finished, but taken as a whole the tension and pace of the book was maintained.

R.I.P.II Challenge

I didn’t think I’d join in with this challenge, but looking at the books Carl gives as examples of scary books I realise that I’ve already read and enjoyed some of them – The Woman in White, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Thirteenth Tale, Season of the Witch, Dr Jykll and Mr Hyde and Titus Groan for example, so I’ve decided it’s not too scary for me after all.

So I’m going for:

Peril the Fourth (Otherwise known as Just a Bit of Peril):
Some of you wonderful readers, or would-be readers, may have a tendency to shy away from this genre, thinking it is just not your cup of poisoned tea. However, it wouldn’™t be a challenge if I wasn’™t challenging you.
This peril is for those of you who want to take a chance. Simply choose one book that you feel meets the criteria for Readers Imbibing Peril II and, well, imbibe it
!

and I’ll be reading Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, partly because I have already started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue and want to finish it. I also remember watching from behind my fingers an old movie of the Pit and the Pendulum and that’s in the collection as well.

Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert

I first read about this book on Ann’s blog, Patternings and thought it would be one I would enjoy, so when a friend gave me a book token for my birthday I bought it. Many thanks to both of you – this is an excellent book. I’ve read so many good books recently I seem to be saying that a lot.

Season of the Witch is a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

The book jacket gives a good summary of the Season of the Witch:

‘Gabriel Blackstone is a cool, hip, thoroughly twenty-first century Londoner with an unusual talent. A computer hacker by trade, he is – by inclination- a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘slam rides’ through the thought processes of others.

But reading people’s minds is something he does only with the greatest reluctance – until he is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters.

And so Gabriel visits Monk House in Chelsea, a place where time seems to stand still.’

The mystery of Robbie’s disappearance leads Gabriel into breaking into Monk House and there are many passages which I felt I had to race through to prevent him from being discovered; that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up leaving me breathless as I read.

I find it hard when reading a book to take notes at the same time as it breaks the flow of my reading and then I struggle to pinpoint exactly what I particularly liked and where in the narrative things occurred. The pace of this book was making me read so fast that I knew I had to slow down or I’d never remember anything except that I liked it. So every now and then I stopped to take stock and after about 100 pages I did start to jot down some page references.

Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names), the beautiful mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Minnaloushe similarly is a mathematical genius who constructs a ‘memory palace’ a mental aid to enhance the memory in the Renaissance tradition. Morrighan is the strong, athletic, risk taker. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

The connection to Dee reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee which moves between London of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, sometimes with no clear distinction between the two, and is about Dee’s alleged attempt to kill Queen Mary by sorcery and the secrets of love and power. Mostert’s book is also about the power of the mind; and the seduction of obsession and love, combined with the concept of alchemy, not only being used to turn lead into gold but as the means to enlightenment. Morrighan says,

Alchemy is really the transformation of the spirit into a higher form of consciousness. Enlightenment. Coming face to face with God and discovering His motivations for creating the universe and your own place within it.

One of the themes that interested me is that of memory, so when I read ‘ we forget what we’ve read almost as soon as we’ve read it’, I couldn’t agree more. The memory palace was a technique originating with the ancient Greeks, which was later developed by alchemists and Gnostics during the Renaissance. A form of mnemonics. These days we use so many aids to memory that don’t actually involve remembering, so much as finding out where to find information. We don’t commit things to memory so much as people did in the past – our minds are shrinking, a horrible thought. It comes as no surprise to find out that the sisters’ mother had Alzheimer’s, which triggered Minnaloushe’s interest in the subject of memory.

Minnaloushe’s hypothesis is that ‘Man’s soul is inextricably bound to his power of recollection.’ This is a disturbing thought and I remembered my feeling of dis-ease when reading Deborah Wearing’s biographical account of her husband Clive’s amnesia in Forever Today. A virus attacked his brain destroying that part essential for memory, leaving him trapped in a limbo of the constant present. He had been a BBC music producer and conductor and the musical part of his brain seemed unaffected as well as his love for his wife. The constant repetition of the same thing over and over is harrowing, every moment was new and every thought the same. Eventually his memory began to improve.

I’m also reading The Remainder by Tom McCarthy, another novel on the themes of memory, amnesia and identity. I’m finding this hard going at the moment as it seems to be going over and over the same ideas, reflecting the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory. As I haven’t finished it all I can say now is that it’s a disturbing book and I found myself thinking this is just not real – strange really considering I can easily accept complete fantasy as ‘real’.

Season of a Witch is a book that leads me to thinking of other books, not just the ones I’ve mentioned but also David Shenk’s The Forgetting: understanding Alzheimer’s: the biography of a disease. This is a remarkable book about the wasting away of the mind, inside a still vigorous body. I read this a few years ago when we thought my mother-in-law might have it – she didn’t, but she had dementia which is very similar in its effects. Looking at it today I think I’d like to read it again. Adam Phillips in the preface refers to reconsidering our relationship with time as Alzheimer’s is about living in (and so for) the moment. ‘Out of fear of mortality we have idealised health and youth and competence. The Forgetting reminds us, among many other things, that there is more to life than all that.’

Another reason this has piqued my interest again is Shenk’s account of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s senile dementia, and because of Stefanie’s posts on Emerson at So Many Books I know more about him than when I read Shenk’s book.

This post has digressed from its original topic but I’m so glad I read Season of the Witch – a compelling read, which has given me much to ponder and led me back to other books and forward to yet others. I see that Natasha Mostert has written other books – see here for more information. This is the first book of hers I’ve read but it will not be the last.

The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton

It’s with a sense of loss that I finished reading The House at Riverton. I felt as though I’d now lost contact with the characters and the worlds they inhabit. I say worlds because this novel is split into two time zones, so widely different in all aspects that they could be separate worlds.

The novel opens in 1999 (reminsicent of Du Maurier’s Rebecca) with Grace’s dream of the night in 1924 when Robbie Hunter, a poet, committed suicide at Riverton Manor. Grace’s memories are revived after Ursula, an American film director who is making a film of the suicide had asked for her help as the only person involved who was still alive.

Grace had worked for the Hartford family during the period 1914 – 1924 , first as a housemaid at Riverton Manor house, then in London as lady’s maid to Hannah, one of the Hartford sisters. The social life of the upper classes during the Edwardian period is the setting for this part of the novel, vividly bringing it to life and contrasting with life and society in the 1990s. The secrets concerning both Grace’s past life and her relationship with the two sisters, Hannah and Emmeline are told in a series of flashbacks as Grace records her memories on tape for her grandson, Marcus (and there is a mystery surrounding Marcus too).

This is a richly descriptive book, well located both in time and place, indentifying the differences in the social classes in 1914 on the eve of the first world war and the immense changes that followed. The characters are well-drawn and believable. The tension and the pace of the novel held my attention throughout, so much so that I had to concentrate on reading just this one book, instead of picking up several as I normally do.

This is a book about strong characters, about families and relationships within the family, particularly between sisters; about privilege; effects of war and change within society; and there is a mystery as well. Definitely a book worth reading.

 

Books To Be Read?

I finished reading The Amber Spyglass today (more of that in another post) and have been wondering which book to read next. I started Remainder last week and so far it’s okay, but after the Pullman books I need something extra. I looked at my books on LibraryThing and found to my great surprise that I have 77 books tagged “tbr” – I can’t believe it! And what’s more I’ve not got all my books entered in yet. And I’ve got 15 books out from the library.

Things have got out of hand. So my project for some time is to sort through the “to be read” books and decide some order of reading, but I know from previuos attempts to organise my reading I won’t stick to it and some other books will call out to be read and I’ll have even more waiting to be read …

Booking through Thursday

Indoctrination

Using a suggestion from Erin today:Indoctrination

When growing up did your family share your love of books? If so, did one person get you into reading? And, do you have any family-oriented memories with books and reading? (Family trips to bookstore, reading the same book as a sibling or parent, etc.)

My love of books is down entirely to my parents. My Dad read to me every night and made up stories for me as well. Both my parents encouraged me to read and Dad made me a bookcase which I still have today. It was always a treat to go to the bookshop and choose a book and books have always been the presents I would choose if my aunties asked what I wanted for Christmas. My mother was always reading as well. I’d come home from school to find her reading and I’d pick up a book too.

She used to take me to the branch library, first when I was very small, on a little seat on the back of her bike and later on we went every Saturday on the bus to the bigger library in the town nearby. There was also a travelling library that came round the road where we lived and we borrowed books from that too. I suppose that it was inevitable that I became a librarian – that was my Dad’s suggestion and it was ideal for me, surrounded by books at home and at work.