Book Review: “The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage”, by Phillip Pullman

Let me preface this review by stating that I’ve been waiting for this book–any book in the His Dark Materials series, really–for almost two decades. Rumors of The Book Of Dust have been swirling out there in Publishingland for at least a decade, if not longer. The fans of His Dark Material I know wondered whether we would ever see it, and what it would be like. Pullman himself once described it as a “very big book”, which I always took to mean that it would take forever to write and that we may never get to enjoy the finished product.

Behold! The finished product has arrived!

And what an arrival it is. La Belle Sauvage is the first book in this new series, entitled The Book of Dust. I have not found a book recently that I dropped into immediately and felt comfortable being led by the nose by the author through the land of his invention, Lyra’s Oxford. And make no mistake, we are indeed led by the nose, the author’s lyric prose the golden ring to which the lead is hitched. Pullman has brought us right back to where we started, an alternative England that is by turns a steampunk world and the Holy Roman Empire. It is a world where the church exhibits tremendous authority and power over state affairs, and where the world is lit by a combination of electric light (called “anbaric”) and good old fashion fossil fuel (naphtha). It is the world of Gyptians and their strange ways and uncanny foresight of the natural world, and of the bravery of boys called upon to be heroes too young.

It is the world of unspeakably evil characters that make you desperately fear for the heroes safety.

The heroes in question are Malcolm Polstead, a boy who works in his parents’ tavern, helping as part of the wait staff and as busboy when not in school or doing homework; and Alice, the eighteen year old girl who washes dishes in the tavern. Despite their grievances toward each other, they find a away to put aside their quarrels when they rescue the infant Lyra from a flooded nunnery. The flood that comes to Oxford is a flood to end all floods, Pullman’s version of the Biblical flood, and it washes them in Malcolm’s canoe, the titular La Belle Sauvage, south toward London in search of Lord Asriel, the girl’s father. They are pursued by a madman whose calm demeanor is betrayed by the hideously maimed hyena that is his daemon, the physical embodiment each human’s soul.

If everything I’ve just said is gibberish to you, then you have not had the enjoyment of the original His Dark Materials series. Pullman spend almost no time grounding you in the world. You are plunged once more into Lyra’s world, and like the rest of Oxford when the great flood comes, it’s either sink of swim. In his trip down the River Thames with our two heroes and their infant ward, we encounter all manner of beings, fearful and fantastic, revealing in part the direction Pullman appears to be taking this new series. The second book, tentatively due out next year, is entitled The Secret Commonwealth, a reference to a book of the same name written four hundred years earlier, and detailing the world of fairies in England. The groundwork for a world of fairies is laid in this first book.

Is The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage as good as the original trilogy? If pressed, I’d probably say no, not quite, but that is my own prejudices talking. The Golden Compass, known as The Northern Lights in the U.K., is one of my favorite books, and my favorite of the series. I could argue that the second and third books aren’t as good as the first, and I would make that argument for La Belle Sauvage as well. But don’t let my silly nostalgia dissway you from reading this one. It is a fine, fine book, and one that I will likely go to again, something I reserve for a very few select titles. The Book of Dust is a marvelous book, and my autumn was made richer by it.

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Book Review: “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins

girl on trainThe last of the books I snarfed down at the end of this summer was “The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This was the “it” book of the summer, the one everyone was talking about and that everyone couldn’t put down. It was supposed to be the page-turner with the twists you couldn’t see coming. And so I too engulfed this one to see what everyone was talking about.

Truthfully, if I had to sum the book up in a word, it would be “meh”.

It’s hard to give too much of a plot summary without giving too much away, and while I, unlike the rest of the world, did not think the book was all that and a bag of chips, I still don’t wish to spoil it for those you enjoy these things more than I do. Or as my wife would describe it, “everyone else but you.”

Fair enough.

The essence of the plot, then, is that a woman named Rachel, down on her luck and sipping gin and tonics from a can while taking the train back and forth to London, fantasizes about what the people in the houses behind the tracks do, the kind of lives they lead. Her own life has fallen apart and she takes a kind of solace in the lives these fantasy people lead in her head. She has even given them names, since their real names are unknown to her.

Then, one day, she sees something as she’s staring through the train window, something that turns her fantasy on its head. At that moment, her life changes from fantasies about these people to an all out obsession about what she saw. An obsession so deep, she risks her life and livelihood, and perhaps darkest of all, her integrity to get close enough to discover the truth.

It sounds like an enthralling premise, doesn’t it? Critics have been using the term Hitchcockian to describe it. It does have a certain “Rear Window” quality to it, that strange voyeuristic quality of Jeff Jefferies looking out his back window and seeing something he thinks is a murder. But that’s were the comparison ends. It starts with a voyeur and turns into a study of a life in freefall. In that regard, the book actually became hard to read. As the main character made bad, then worse, then catastrophic decisions, I wondered how much longer I could read until the unraveling of her life became too unpalatable. It never quite got there, but it came really darn close.

The plot relies largely on what the New York Times referred to as “unreliable narration”, meaning you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you. Except that you can. The narration flickers between three narrators, all of the women, all of whom are involved in the plot. Each one has their quirks and problems, each has moments of fooling themselves, but that’s really all they’re fooling. Unreliable narration only goes so far, and when at least one of the characters is a blackout drunk, you can readily expect that their memory will be a bit, shall we say, fuzzy.

Another of the devices used to confuse the reader is a jumbling of the timing of the scenes. The cutting is designed to bring the reader back and forth and possibly add some confusion, but a careful reading will show that each chapter is timestamped. You get a certain anticipatory feeling as you near the time when you know that the precipitating event happened, and that you’ll finally get to see it, feeling like maybe you’ll be surprised by what’s around the corner. But you aren’t.

Or at least I wasn’t.

Also, the book was written in the first person present tense. Don’t get me started.

The climax doesn’t twist nearly as much as everyone had been claiming it did. I found myself unsurprised at the ending, indeed, hoping for something different. I was disappointed when I was right. Of the four books I’ve reviewed in the last few days, having gulped them all down like a thirsty man in a desert, I’d have to say that “The Girl On The Train” was my least favorite.

Sorry everybody.

Queue up the backlash. 

Book Review: “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” by Ace Atkins

wonderlandI needed something to cleanse the mental pallet after Lou Berney’s “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It was such an intense read, the way Berney knifes the reader in nearly every single scene, that I needed to visit some familiar friends. Queue up Spenser.

Since Robert Parker’s sudden death in 2010, Ace Atkins has been carrying on the Spenser tradition with the blessing of the estate. Hand picked to keep Spenser going, Atkins has written four Spenser books thus far, and will likely keep going for the foreseeable future. The first one, called “Lullaby”, I reviewed here. It wasn’t a bad book, so I thought I’d give “Wonderland” a try.

Doesn’t hurt that I got it on remainder.

This time, the client is Henry Cimoli, the owner of the Boston gym where Spenser and Hawk used to (and still do) box. He’s being muscled out of the condo he owns so that a Las Vegas casino developer can move in and build. The novel explorers Henry more than I remember Parker ever doing, and Atkins mostly nails him. There is of course the usual cavalcade of characters that Atkins likes to bring to the stage, and to a certain extent, this feels like Atkins is trying to prove to the Parker faithful that he knows the Spenser work so well. Despite the fact that the book is chock full of characters Spenser has had contact with in the past, the characterizations largely work to the novels advantage.

There is one exception. The relatively new player in the on-going adventures of Spenser is one Zebulon Sixkill, the American Indian that Spenser has taken under his wing to train as a private investigator. This relationship feels forced, as if Atkins picked up a leftover character from the Spenser dinner table and decided to do something with him. In the final Spenser book by Parker, “Sixkill“, we’re introduced to “Z”, as Zebulon has come to be called, but there is nothing to indicate that he’ll be a continued or recurring character. I’m not sure if this is Atkins taking liberties, or whether any of Parker’s notes indicate that Z will continue, but in this case, it feels forced.

As a crime novel, it’s a good one. The plot is more complex than the ones Parker used to set up, at least in the later Spenser novels. Spenser’s sarcasm is present, though more muted than it was in “Lullaby”, which isn’t a bad thing. “Lullaby” felt a little over the top with the hard-boiled quips. Spenser is still sarcastic in “Wonderland”, but he never ventures down the path of snarky. The prose is not as lean as Parker’s was, but then again, few hard-boiled novels written these days are as lean as Parker wrote. Parker, self-admittedly, loved dialogue because it “chew[ed] up a lot of pages.” One could look at this as being lazy, but I find that Parker’s style was such that the plot, characters, and danger were all conveyed convincingly through dialogue, and sometimes dialogue alone. A great example of how this works is through the Jesse Stone novels (which I highly, highly recommend).

After the last page is done, Atkins still isn’t Parker. They’re tough shoes to fill. But Atkins does a nice job with most of the characters and the location of Boston itself. Spenser will continue to live on, and in Atkins hands, that’s not a bad thing.

Book Review: “Going Clear”, by Lawrence Wright

GoingClearCoverHaving taken most of December and January off from blogging, it’s time to get back to it. What better way to start than with a book review. And a humdinger of a book it is.

You may have heard of Lawrence Wright’s investigation into the Church of Scientology. His book “Going Clear” is the result of a long-form journalism article that appeared in the New Yorker that told the story of Paul Haggis’s very public exit from the Church. Paul Haggis, for those who don’t know, is a screenwriter and director, most well-known for writing and directing the movie “Crash”. Additionally, you may have heard of the documentary “Going Clear”, directed by Alex Gibney. It is due to air on HBO on March 16th, after making a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival this past year. The documentary is inspired by Wright’s book.

The book itself continues to use Paul Haggis as it’s central core around which the rest of the narrative revolves. Haggis’s early experience with the Church open the book, and after a lengthy but necessary detour exploring the life and times of L Ron Hubbard, who founded the Church, and David Miscavige, who took over from Hubbard once Hubbard was no longer well enough to run the Church, the narrative returns to Haggis.

One of the great difficulties of writing on this topic, prior to Haggis’s departure and afterward, is the lack of information about the inner workings of the Church of Scientology. The Church, which goes out of its way to maintain its secrecy, has ttired to tightly control information about its inner workings. There is, therefore, very little documentation from which can be drawn an investigation. Wright uses, as his sources, many ex-Scientologists, which have given harrowing accounts of what life inside the Church is like; official public documents, such as the Naval records of Hubbard from his time in the service during WWII; leaked scriptural content, which ex-Scientologists have managed to smuggle out of the Church as they made their escape; and the few books and investigative articles that have come before. Interestingly, for this last category, there are very few. The reason is because the Church makes a deliberate effort to undermine these kind of investigations, and, failing that, harass the authors with private investigators, lawsuits, and even framing them for felony crimes.

profile-LRHBecause limits that the Church will go to in order to protect itself seem to be boundless, this book becomes a page-turner of a story, enumerating the actions the Church has taken over the years against individuals, businesses, and even an enormous government bureaucracy (the IRS). The founder of the Church of Scientology, the prolific science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, is presented in a manner that show him to be at best a pathological liar and at worst a paranoid schizophrenic. The current leader, David Miscavige, is portrayed as a tyrant rivaling some recently toppled despots, who is willing to use humiliation, degradation, and even physical violence and abuse to get what he wants.

In recent years, a number of stories about the inner workings of the Church have come to light. Stories of a place called the Hole, a set of un-air-conditioned trailers sitting in the dessert with bars on the windows and security guards at the door. Stories about how church members have been made to lick toilets clean or subsist off of leftover table scraps or sleep on floors covered with ants. What’s amazing is that these Church members are typically high-ranking members of the Church’s leadership whose only sin was to land on the wrong side of Miscavige’s ire. Additional stories have emerged from former Scientologists themselves, on sites such as exscientologykids.com.

When taken as the sum of its parts, the book never truly decides what it wants to be, which may its only significant flaw. It is a compelling read, and it’s easy to see why it was a finalist for the Nation Book Award. But there is a lot of stuff going on inside its 450+ pages, all of which relevant, all of which, when woven together tell a helluva yarn, none of which take a specific stand. Perhaps good journalism is like that, letting the reader determine the stand they must take. As such, “Going Clear” is part expose on human rights abuses, part biography of the charismatic and troubled founder, part investigation as to why Hollywood is so fascinated (some would argue “taken in” or “hoodwinked”) by the Church. Many people these days outside of the Church are most familiar with Scientology based on interviews celebrities such as Tom Cruise has given, where his defense of the Church has been oddly aggressive. Wright’s book shows that interior of Scientology is much darker, and it’s perceived weirdness much deeper than what most readers know. If anything, Wright’s book is as concise a history of the Church of Scientology as one is likely to find outside the church’s officially blessed and released histories.

It is in the epilogue where Wright’s investigation (the Church might in fact describe the investigation as “muckraking”) transcends the the rest of the book. He never offers an indictment of the Church, though, if even half of the stories that ex-members tell are true, then one is certainly warranted. He also never truly defends them. The epilogue is where he comes the closest, holding the Church of Scientology and all of its troubling history and downright bizarre space-opera cosmology up against other profoundly popular and recent theologies. The most obvious is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, who believe in a third book of the holy scriptures known as the Book of Mormon, a scripture based on an ancient set of holy tablets found right here in the good ol US of A. He compares Scientology, rightly or wrongly, to both cults and ancient religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. The Reverend Jim Jones, another charismatic leader, led hundreds to their death at their own hands in Guyana. Christianity, in its early days, was persecuted by the Romans who must have thought that the idea of a single god was absolutely bonkers. In both cases, as with active Scientologists, their belief is absolute. What any and all faiths rely on is that very word itself: “faith”. There are always going to be aspects of faith that are un-proveable. An atheist demands proof, which he will never get, and the believer believes blindly, never questioning whether that which he believes is maybe just a little bit crazy. In comparing Scientology to other faiths, creeds, and cults, Wright wraps up his book on a high note, reminding us without chastising us that matters of human rights abuses must certainly be addressed. Matters of individuals faith is really no one else’s business.

Review: “Fat Chance” by Robert Lustig

fat chance

I came by this book via NPR. I heard the author describing the effects of sugar and heard the title of his book, and decided I needed to know more. That is how I came by one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Robert Lustig describes sugar as a poison, and by all accounts, including his, he’s right. I’ve been mainlining poison all these years!

Before we get into the book itself, let’s start with some background. Who is Robert Lustig, and how did this book come to be?

Right from his profile on the UCSF website, “Robert H. Lustig, M.D. is Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at University of California, San Francisco, and Director of the Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health (WATCH) Program at UCSF.”

So what, you might say. What does that have to do with this book? The answer is actually pretty easy. What Lustig discovered from all his years in medicine is that there is one element that rises above all others as the primary driver of all the metabolic issues and diseases (collectively referred to as “metabolic syndrome”) facing consumers of food (i.e., every human on the planet): sugar.

Things really got rolling with a YouTube video of Lustig giving a presentation to an audience regarding the dangers of sugar. Entitled “Sugar: The Bitter Truth“, Lustig spends nearly ninety minutes taking the audience through the ins and outs of sugar, focusing on fructose. This is not a lighthearted journey. He goes into the statistics behind what Americans are consuming today versus what they were consuming at the turn of the twentieth century; how glucose, alcohol, and fructose are metabolized in meticulous, borderline mindbogglingly biochemistry detail; and how we got to where we are. First posted to YouTube in 2009, it’s been viewed an whopping 4.4 million times.

This presentation eventually morphed into the book “Fat Chance“, which was released last year, and which has been released in paperback to coincide with the release of a “Fat Chance Cookbook“. The presentation, and the book as well, are almost story-like in their presentation, at least as much as a medical-laden book and presentation can be. And as any writer will tell you, a good story needs a good villain. For Lustig, that villain is sugar. Fructose to be exact. A villain so diabolical, he refers to it as every evil storybook villain you can think of, from the Darth Vader of food to the Voldemort of food. Or, perhaps more telling, he refers to sugar as a poison.

Okay, so that’s the background. How about the book itself?

It’s hard to review a book like this because it operates on a couple of different levels. From a pure readability standpoint, the book often times gets bogged down in its own technical terminology and descriptions. There was more biochemistry in this thing than in Dr. Torrence’s junior year chem class (in which I SCRAPED by with a D). There are so many terms that eventually I stopped trying to remember them all and simply take for granted that someone with a hefty amount of scientific background proofed the book prior to publication.

As far as narrative voice goes, Lustig’s voice is fairly unique when it isn’t drowning in terminology. He’s a firebrand, preaching from the pulpit of a man who has seen it all and been there. He is not afraid to call out a naked emperor, and it’s not unusual for him to repeat the refrain “We’re screwed”. In one very notable passage, he describes us all as “fructed”. The majority of his chapters open with a brief vignette of a patient case he has dealt with, and more than a few are heartbreaking. There is a force of passion behind his message, one that is not easily ignored nor argued. He is a pediatric endocrinologist, after all, and he knows his shit cold.

This, then, is where the book really shines. Amidst the preaching of the author, and the technical jargon that will make your head spin, is the long litany of facts, stats, and studies that are at the heart of this book. He makes a point early on saying that every point he makes in the book is based on scientific fact, the sources of which are contained in a notes section at the end of the book. Without these to support his argument, Lustig would likely be seen as an extremist, a fringe-scientist shouting at the masses and not being heard. Because the villain here, again, is sugar, not fat as most diets vilify. And not just the high fructose corn syrup sugar that everyone was up in arms about a few years ago. This is ALL sugar.

Back in the late seventies/early eighties, the low-fat movement began. Want to control heart disease? Decrease your fat intake and that will help lower you bad cholesterol (LDL). The food industry moved in this direction, lowering the yummy, tasty fat, and ended up with a bunch of bland, boring foods that needed a zing. Enter sugar. At a time when corn crops were subsidized, whether the crop was a boom or a bust, and the price of a newly derived sweetener called high fructose corn syrup sank to incredibly cheap levels, it became easy for the food industry to beef up the flavor using this form of sugar.

But it didn’t help, did it? No. Because the population has grown more obese. So we instead turned to diets and exercise. Denis Leary laughing described us as gerbils as we continually climbed stairs on the StairMaster. “Where are you going?” “I’m going up!” But even that didn’t help. Why? Because the human body metabolizes different parts of food in different ways. In the heavy biochem part of his YouTube video, Lustig demonstrates that glucose, alcohol, and fructose metabolize differently. And even though he starts off with 120 calories of each, it’s not 120 calories that are absorbed by the body. So you can’t burn 120 calories in exercise and assume that you’ve got a net effect. It just doesn’t work that way. Because (and this is also a constant refrain in the book), “a calorie is not just a calorie.”

Both the book and the video are eye-opening, and if the book comes off medical-heavy and overly didactic, well that’s really the point. It’s not meant to be a touchy-feely self-help volume about how “You Can Do It If You Just Try Hard Enough”. No, the book argues, you can’t. The odds are stacked against you. The politics of food processing are enormous here, and to make a top-down change is certainly not likely to happen.

Is it all doom and gloom? Did I spend a week reading a book that scientifically demonstrates the problem but fails to provide a solution. Not at all. While the book spends more time on the problem than the solution, the solution does indeed exist in fiber an exercise. But I won’t go into the details here because you should dive into this book yourself. It’s eye-opening in a way I didn’t think possible. Ever wondered why you feel down after a sugarfest, hungry after a huge sweet and sour infused Chinese meal, or why you Just. Can’t. Escape. Donuts, especially when your stressed? Then this book is for you. You will never look at food, food labels, and ingredient lists the same way again. And trust me, that’s a good thing.