Continuing on my "great books" kick, I finished Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, last week. This book is widely considered one of the greatest in the English language. Personally, I had some problems with it.
To give a brief sketch - The book describes the early years of Stephen Deadalus, Joyce's alter-ego, as he confronts his resistance to the traditional teachings of the Catholic church, disillusionment with his father, and his own early experiences/thoughts about the creation and consumption of art. The book is chock full of symbolism and allusion (ie. Deadalus is Icarus' father in mythology; he created the wax/feather wings which Icarus used to fly too close to the sun, etc.), and the characters engage in lengthy discussions about the doctrines of the church, the creation/meaning of art, and more.
And while I found the discussions intellectually interesting (and Joyce writes some wonderfully gorgeous descriptive passages), I longed for more of a plotline in which to couch such things. Basically, Stephen goes to school, talks to his schoolmates, thinks about art/religion/sex, and decides he wants to write. As a modern reader, I wanted more to actually happen in the novel, which is largely a cerebral affair. I don't think the book is without its charms, but I would not read it again, kwim?
The second book I read this week was The Golden Compass. It's October's selection in my book club, and other readers chose it to see what all the controversy was about. (You may remember the hue and cry when the recent film adaptation, starring Nicole Kidman, was released in 2007.) This is a book for young adult readers, and it's about 400 pages long. Once you get past page 50 or so, it flies by.
This richly-imagined tome tells the story of Lyra, a young girl growing up in a world not totally unlike our own. An orphan, she's ensconced at the highly-respected Jordan College, where she's cared for and occasionally taught. In Lyra's world, every human is born with a daemon, a soul-like animal that accompanies them everywhere. Daemons stay with their humans throughout life, protecting them, consoling them, keeping them company.
As we soon learn, however, things are changing in Lyra's world, and vast, dark powers are afoot. The Magisterium, sort-of a super-powerful religious entity, is at work politically. In addition, local people talk in hushed tones about the Gobblers, who spirit wayward children off. The children are never seen or heard from again.
When Lyra meets the glamourous Ms. Coulter at a college luncheon, she's enchanted. Her dreams come true when college officials tell her that Ms. Coulter is going to be put in charge of her education. Lyra trips off to London with Coulter, who lavishes her with expensive clothes, gifts, fancy meals, and parties.
Pretty soon, though, Lyra realizes there is something quietly dangerous about her new guardian. Fearing for her safety, she runs away, putting into motion an ancient prophecy that is only hinted at in this volume. (The complete Pullman trilogy, I assume, will explain it satisfactorily.)
I really enjoyed this book, and I imagine that I will also eventually read the other two books in the series. I know that the Catholic church got its dander up about the movie, but I didn't see too much to worry about in the book. Pullman does base *some* of his world on our Catholic church, using similar terms, drawing from their history, etc., but what people seem to forget is that The Golden Compass (like the popular DaVinci Code) is just a BOOK. And a fantasy at that.
For example, in this book, talking warrior polar bears play a fairly large role. Now, do you see bear advocates getting in a lather, saying that this portrays bears as violent? No. And it would be absurd if they did. Now, there may be more to gripe about in the remaining two volumens, but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. As for this book, I found it to be a highly-enjoyable, fantastically creative fantasy.
I look forward to reading the other books in the trilogy.