Hello! I hope you are all staying sane during social isolation/quarantine. I have lost track of the weeks as well as the months, so I am not prepared to attempt to write a monthly wrap up. At the moment, rather, I have settled quite nicely into “Recent Reads” posts. As I have recently been on quite a Harry Potter binge, I have not read a variety of books. However, I have included four books on this list (I had initially intended to include the Philippe Petit book I ordered but I have yet to read it), one of which is a Harry Potter book. I decided it was best not to only write about three books as that would have been more underwhelming than the current circumstances. Let’s begin!
*As always, all summaries are from Goodreads.*
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by: J.K. Rowling – #3 in the Harry Potter series *5/5 stars*
Summary: Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts is full of new dangers. A convicted murderer, Sirius Black, has broken out of Azkaban prison, and it seems he’s after Harry. Now Hogwarts is being patrolled by the dementors, the Azkaban guards who are hunting Sirius. But Harry can’t imagine that Sirius or, for that matter, the evil Lord Voldemort could be more frightening than the dementors themselves, who have the terrible power to fill anyone they come across with aching loneliness and despair. Meanwhile, life continues as usual at Hogwarts. A top-of-the-line broom takes Harry’s success at Quidditch, the sport of the Wizarding world, to new heights. A cute fourth-year student catches his eye. And he becomes close with the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, who was a childhood friend of his father. Yet despite the relative safety of life at Hogwarts and the best efforts of the dementors, the threat of Sirius Black grows ever closer. But if Harry has learned anything from his education in wizardry, it is that things are often not what they seem.
Review: Oddly, I believe Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my less read Harry Potter books. That is likely because I tend to gravitate towards the fourth, fifth, or sixth books if I do choose to casually read one of them. However, although I had read Prisoner of Azkaban last summer, I craved another Harry Potter book to devour following my read of Deathly Hallows (after which I grieved). As always, it was ever so refreshing and exhilarating to revisit the wizarding world.
To be truthful, I am unable to comfortably criticize the Harry Potter books wholeheartedly, for my love for the series will forever prevail over the slightest criticism. I also do not wish to read the books particularly critically (aside from discovering the depth and dimension). During my latest read, however, I repeatedly found myself frustrated by J.K. Rowling’s unnecessary and incessant use of italics. (This, I believe, is a new observation that I would be more content disregarding. Nevertheless, I thought it best to remark on.)
In an interview, Rowling described how she found Prisoner of Azkaban the easiest of the seven books to write. This response became especially apparent over the course of the novel due to the particular ease and informality with which she writes. I wholly admire Rowling’s effortless and natural writing style. However, her writing throughout Prisoner of Azkaban felt uncharacteristically lazy. (Many argue that her writing throughout the entire series is lazy and sloppy, but I say otherwise.) Unfortunately, I was uncommonly frustrated by her writing during this book. Although it unsettles me greatly to disapprove of an aspect of Harry Potter so significant as the writing (in this book alone, to be clear), my love for the books has not faded one ounce.
TRANSATLANTIC by: Colum McCann – A novel *3.75 – 4/5 stars*
Summary: Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.
New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.
These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.
Review: I quite enjoyed Colum McCann’s novel, TransAtlantic. As always, McCann’s writing was powerful and pleasurable—albeit frustrating, at times. His soft and delicate poetic style evokes a soothing and moving atmosphere throughout the narrative. In addition, I applaud his ability to cleverly interweave a historical element with a fictional element to create a forlorn, yet beautifully hopeful, tale. More notably than Let the Great World Spin and Apeirogon, this novel arouses a lonely sense of time. Beyond the historical element, the story undoubtedly possesses a palpable feeling of history and age—a pair of attributes that equally saddened and gratified me.
As a writer, Colum McCann is fairly demanding of the reader. His novels are purposefully thought-provoking and inquisitive. Throughout TransAtlantic, he focuses greatly on slavery and social reform by means of Frederick Douglass’ story, as well as the Good Friday Agreement by means of George Mitchell’s story. These narratives are profound and undeniably stimulating and inspiring.
However, my criticism regarding this novel, as well as McCann’s other novels that I have read, concerns the fact that the primary drivers of his stories are habitually male. Although the male characters are commonly historic/non-fictional figures, it displeases me that the women tend to be merely interwoven with the male characters’ stories. While the male characters are consistently at the core of the story, the female characters are likely to linger nearby, neither assertive nor empowered. Although there are indeed several well-crafted, compelling female characters present in McCann’s novels (particularly in Let the Great World Spin), the men continue to dominate.
Additionally, the women felt stereotypically soft and falsely confident, as well as overwhelmingly traditionally feminine. By contrast, I rarely find Colum McCann’s male characters traditionally masculine, which is presumably why I gravitate towards their characters to a greater degree than I do towards the women. Although a definite femininity—a femininity that seeps into his writing—and tenderness accompany each of McCann’s characters, the women felt somewhat indistinguishable and plain. Unfortunately, the cast of characters present in TransAtlantic did not impress me nearly as much as those present in Let the Great World Spin, for several of the characters—the male characters included—felt uncharacteristically indistinct and, perhaps, underdeveloped.
Overall, I appreciate the humanity and, as always in McCann’s work, the significance and relevance of the novel and its characters. I do believe that my reading experience was largely tainted by the current state of affairs, as well as by the fact that I yearned to reread another of the Harry Potter books (it’s a healthy obsession!). However, by and large, I did find TransAtlantic enjoyable and beneficial.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by: Jonathan Safran Foer – A novel *4/5 stars*
Summary: Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father’s closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace.
Review: I thought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a highly enjoyable and compassionate read. Throughout the book, bursts of humour contributed a layer of comfort while accompanying the heart-rending and perceptive story. In addition, much like Colum McCann, Foer deftly fused together several generations to form a relatively cohesive story.
I thoroughly appreciated the heavy concentration on family, as well as Foer’s decision to write a young, (seemingly) autistic boy as the leading character. I believe Oskar softened the story an appropriate amount, while maintaining its profundity and significance. The majority of the cast of characters, in fact, were endearing and tender and contributed considerably to the heartwarming atmosphere of the narrative.
Furthermore, I expected to strongly dislike the writing due to its unusual style. However, I was pleasantly surprised by its strange fluidity and the satisfaction that arose within me throughout the duration of the book.
Although Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was indeed a delightful read, I have a couple critiques. As Foer interwove the generational narratives, the older characters—Oskar’s grandmother and grandfather—grew fairly shallow and one-dimensional as a result of the repetition and prolongation of their stories. I would have preferred if their stories were fleshed out to a greater degree by, in part, focusing less on the unique qualities the two characters possessed. (I will say no more with respect to the characters’ qualities due to spoilers.)
In addition, I found the ending exceptionally anticlimactic and tragically disappointing. I recognize the fact that the mystery of the story led Oskar on a necessary experience of healing and acceptance, as well as resilience and growth. However, aside from the heavily-emphasized family element, the mystery was the primary initiator of significant events in the story. Therefore, from exclusively a storyline perspective, the ending was a transparent failure, whether that was purposefully or unconsciously.
For these reasons, I would have certainly ended the novel differently, insofar as ensuring that there was a definite correlation between the mystery and Oskar’s dad. This likely would have satisfied readers who were otherwise unsatisfied by the conclusion of the novel. However, deliberately (or unconsciously) striving to please your audience can become a dangerous inclination and, subsequently, habit for authors, as well as a dangerous comfort for readers. Therefore, if Foer had deliberately prevented the mystery from having a rewarding conclusion, then I applaud his audacity and determination.
THE AMBER SPYGLASS by: Philip Pullman – #3 in the His Dark Materials trilogy
Summary: Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel – by the command of his dying father.
But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and intrigues that beset him.
The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead…
Review: I have a complicated relationship with The Golden Compass trilogy. I read the first two books in November of 2019 and then proceeded with the final installment, The Amber Spyglass. However, because I was already fairly disappointed by the The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, I began this book feeling thoroughly disgruntled and exasperated. Around half way into the book, I decided to discontinue my read with the hope that I would revisit it in a month or so. And here I am (six months later)!
As I (unwisely) decided to revisit The Amber Spyglass from where I had initially left off, it would be unfair to rate this book. Entirely due to my own decisions, the trilogy felt exceptionally disjointed. And although I have reasonably enjoyed this final chapter, I cannot suppress my dissatisfaction with the trilogy. I foolishly expected to enjoy these books as much as I do Harry Potter. However, the magical element, among numerous others, failed to attract me. I do appreciate several elements of the trilogy, such as the fascinating concept of Dust and the daemons. Nevertheless, by and large, I was sorely disappointed. Perhaps I will decide to return to this trilogy in the next couple years.
I hope you have enjoyed this relatively brief (in terms of the number of books) post! I am currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and will hopefully write a review after I have finished it (so expect the review in the next year or so…).
All the best,