Home Books What I read in: December 2019

What I read in: December 2019

by Ellie Hopgood

December ended up being a solid reading month. It started off slowly, with a non-fiction book that didn’t grab me but that I wanted to finish anyway, and then perked up towards the end. I also continued my descent into being fully obsessed with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

Storms Of My Grandchildren – James Hansen

This year, I have read a lot of books about climate change, and the one thing I tend to feel is that there is not enough science in them. I sought out Joseph Romm’s book Climate Change in June in order to explicitly address this problem, knowing that most climate scientists are not writing books right now and that most climate change books deal with the social and cultural implications of climate change, not the chemistry. Being the pretentious person I am, I had secretly hoped for a more scientific book, assuming that my scientific background would allow me to understand it better than most. Boy, was I wrong. This book was way too dense for me, full of specific figures, calculations and graphs and very difficult to get into without my mind wandering. It took me ages to get through this relatively short book and now, looking back, I can’t even remember much of it.

Since I read this book at the beginning of December, I’ve felt like it must be me. The author, James Hansen, is one of the world’s foremost climate scientists and is the person who testified in front of the Senate in the 1980s to warn the US government about global warming. He’s had a very interesting career. He probably knows more about climate change, and the science behind it, than anyone in the world. But I’m now reading Falter by Bill McKibben, also about climate change, also by a prominent voice in the climate activist movement, and it is so much more readable and gripping. So yeah, I think it might be Storms of My Grandchildren itself. While this is a book about climate science, and how exactly we know the planet is warming, it is also a book about the intersection of science and politics and a memoir of Hansen’s time trying to convince the American government to take climate change seriously. It’s 250 pages of ‘I told you so,’ which I can’t begrudge him, because he’s right, but I can say doesn’t make for a particularly engaging book. Given that any casual reader will not even be trying to remember the specific stats and figures, the science is overwhelming and the commentary is dry. There are much better books about climate change.

American War – Omar el Akkad (mild spoilers)

American War tells the story of the second American civil war, which starts in the 2070s, between the ‘Reds’ and the ‘Blues,’ and is set to the (very) rough backdrop of climate change. We follow Sarat Chestnut through her life, as the Chestnut family is displaced from their home, settled in a refugee camp and then affected in myriad terrible ways by the war. We also follow Sarat as she becomes a feared fighter for the rebel resistance.

This book didn’t do it for me, because it didn’t really have a plot. The plot was ‘there’s a war,’ which is far too broad a focus to be gripping at all. By page 100, I had no idea what the actual story was, and found myself jumping from section to section of Sarat’s life with no idea what the point was. There are plenty of great books about wars, real or fictional, but I feel like most of those books are telling a much tighter story within the bigger picture of the conflict. A story about love or friendship or mental health or whatever. This book doesn’t get a proper narrative until the second half and I’m afraid that was too late for me. The final ‘twist’ was also very predictable. I love dystopian stories but this one was a disappointment.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

This is one of the most famous apocalyptic novels and it was as good and terrifying as I remember it being from when I read it for the first time in my teens. It shares the story of a father and son, known as the man and the boy, as they walk, vaguely south toward the sea, in the barren wasteland of civilisation. The Road asks uncomfortable questions about how quickly society would disintegrate, the lengths you might go to in order stay alive, why we feel an urge to stay alive when the future is almost certainly amazingly bleak and what it means to hold onto your morality when everyone else has abandoned theirs.

This book felt at its most impactful for me when I imagined the man and boy as my father and brother, and suddenly, the plain scenes became heart thumpers, imagining what it would truly be like for a father trying to keep his young son hale and whole in a world like this, with no real hope of anything better. They just have to keep walking. The scene with the three people and the infant was as shocking to me to now as when I read it for the first time years ago. This is an uncomfortable read, but a brilliant one.

How Democracies Die – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Much like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, this book takes a little bit of work, but is so, so worth it. After reading both this book and Storms of My Grandchildren, I have been thinking about what makes a successful non-fiction book, because both of these books are crammed full of data, names, dates and very specific examples, and it makes for a hard read. I appreciate why this is important: it lends credence to the arguments being made and helps contextualise broader points in real examples. Without all these facts to back up the authors’ points, these books would just be one person’s ill informed opinions, which might be interesting but carries a lot less weight than something a lot more considered. That being said, I will never, ever remember most of the names, dates and figures in these books. Ever. I do highlight interesting passages or examples, so I can reference them later, but for the most part, what I take away from non-fiction books are the broad arguments, the big points, the notable trends. The big picture of this book was fascinating and so timely but the constant deep dives into specific situations wore on me a little. I think this might just be me though, because I know that this book wouldn’t be anywhere near as respected without the details. Anyway.

How Democracies Die explains how autocrats erode democracies without anyone noticing. Typically, democracies are broken down within the established democratic systems, so not only do people not notice that it’s happening they continue to believe that it’s not happening at all, despite their political system now being something altogether more autocratic in all but name. Democracy is something we do, not something a system inherently is just because we say so.

This book was very useful to read right now, in the aftermath of the UK general election, because it describes what to look out for in Boris Johnson’s government. The book is US-focused (and Trump’s democratic creds are evaluated explicitly – spoiler alert, he does not fare well) but does contain examples from South and Central America, Asia and Europe, too. In particular, the focus on the importance of unwritten norms was an eye-opener for me, as were the discussions about the importance of mutual toleration. The final chapter was very good, as was the chapter that examined the use of lies in the death of democracy. A very relevant, useful book.

La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman (spoilers, TW rape/sexual assault)

Both La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth (reviewed below) are part of the His Dark Materials universe, though they are books 1 and 2, respectively, in Pullman’s new trilogy, the Book of Dust. La Belle Sauvage precedes the original trilogy, and tells the story of an innkeeper’s son, Malcolm, who protects baby Lyra from the oppressive Magisterium during the Great Flood. The book’s purpose is to explain how Lyra came to be placed in Jordan College, where we find her at the start of Northern Lights. The first part of the book focused on setting the scene, exploring Magisterial politics and introducing us to secret service outfit Oakley Street, with a few cameos from beloved original trilogy characters thrown in there too. The second part, the Great Flood, shares Malcolm and his begrudging companion Alice’s Odyssey-esque journey from Oxford to London (to deliver Lyra to Lord Asriel) in a canoe. On the way, they encounter numerous challenges, including magic unlike anything we saw in the original trilogy. I liked the first part a lot, but found the second part bizarre and hallucinatory, a stark departure from the rest of the books.

I liked finding out more about the politics of Lyra’s world, because any story about the repressive nature of organised religion is, ultimately, a political one. These new books are clearly more geared toward adult readers, which allows Pullman to explore the dark side of the Church even more explicitly. It also allows him to make sex and desire a much bigger part of the books, which I’d have appreciated in theory – you can’t critique Catholicism without discussing its views on sex, gender and desire – but ended up becoming a hot mess of sexual violence that left a really bad taste in my mouth. The main villain, Gerard Bonneville, is revealed early to be a convicted attacker of women, and he goes on to rape fifteen-year-old Alice, with it also being implied that he raped Mrs Coulter as well (she was the main witness at his trial and is visibly distressed when asked about him in person. He also says his motivation for stealing Lyra is that she’s his daughter, which is swiftly confirmed to be false but raises the question of why Bonneville might come up with this ruse in the first place). This is a lot. Alice’s rape feels painfully gratuitous, only really occurs to allow Malcolm to be the hero and is not given the due attention it deserves in the immediate aftermath or the following book. It is everything that shouldn’t happen with a rape storyline. Similarly, casually suggesting that iconic original character Mrs Coulter has a rape in her past – from the same man that is now trying to kidnap her daughter – without giving that idea any real exploration, depth or respect did not sit well with me. There is also a jarring scene where it is suggested that Malcolm (aged 11) might be used as bait for a different sexual predator known to target young boys, an idea that is quickly shut down by another character, but then is never mentioned again. It serves no purpose in the plot or the development of any character and only serves to include another grim reminder of sexual abuse. I don’t know what I was expecting from La Belle Sauvage, but lots of gratuitous sexual assault was definitely not it.

This book was fine. I think Pullman did a decent job of creating new characters to care about, though I did enjoy the scenes with Asriel, Mrs Coulter and the discussions of their back story the most (I find these two fascinating). The descriptions of the Magisterium’s structure and activities were also interesting to me. I found the canoe journey very odd, but now, having read the Secret Commonwealth, I understand it a little better. I’m glad I read it; if nothing else, I now understand more His Dark Materials references, which is good enough for me. But the follow up (reviewed below) was much better, and neither were a patch on the original trilogy.  

The Secret Commonweath – Philip Pullman (spoilers, TW rape/sexual assault)

I feel like I have been unfairly critical in my reviews of all the books in the His Dark Materials universe, all of which I have read and reviewed in November and December of this year. While I stand by both my praise and criticisms of the plot and my general analysis, I want to make clear that I only share all these niggles because I care so much about the world and the stories. These reviews are some of the longest I’ve written all year, which is not a coincidence. The more invested I am in a book, the more likely I am to analyse it compulsively (and the more likely I am to write extensively about my analysis). I have loved these books this year! But with that love comes more obsessing and higher expectations, hence my rambling reviews.

The Secret Commonwealth picks up about ten years after The Amber Spyglass, with Lyra studying at Oxford and arguing with Pan. Almost immediately, they get caught up in a dramatic murder mystery, which takes them – separately, ooh – across Europe towards the Middle East, looking for answers about their relationship, rose oil, Dust, the magic world of the secret commonwealth and the interplay of art and science, imagination and rationality. There’s a lot going on, but Pullman makes it work, bringing his seemingly effortless storytelling to even the most complicated of narratives. I really enjoyed Lyra travelling east this time, rather than north, and loved everything we learned about daemons and the dark side of the human-daemon bond. In the original trilogy, Lyra was a child, and so we see the sanctity of the human-daemon relationship through a child’s eyes. In the new trilogy, Lyra is older, so we get to learn more about all the ways in which humans and their daemons can be tremendously dysfunctional. I liked going deeper into these themes. This was clearly written with the next book’s story in mind, so there are many loose ends at the close of the book. I’m looking forward to the third book a lot.

That being said, as with everything, the book is not without its issues. The scene where Lyra is almost gang raped on a train was horrific, and, combined with everything I felt about Pullman’s use of sexual violence in La Belle Sauvage, did not feel necessary to me and made me give him the metaphorical side-eye. I just don’t know what point he’s trying to make, other than that women are vulnerable to abuse, which is not ground-breaking or deep in and of itself, especially when the impact of these attacks is ignored completely. To have so many of the core female characters across all five books now be the victims of attempted or completed sexual assaults makes my heart heavy.

Not all of Pullman’s exploration of power through desire, sex and abuse was non-consensual, though. This is a book for grownups about grownup Lyra and I liked that it didn’t shy away from sex and love. Despite this, I am not a fan at all of Malcolm and Lyra together, which is being strongly suggested as the endgame. Malcolm is the boy who rescued Lyra as a baby, watched over her as a child and was her professor as a teen. Sure, she’s now legally an adult, but she’s only twenty and he’s in his thirties and, oh yeah, he changed her nappies when she was baby! Gross. I think I find weirder because I could tell that this is what Pullman was eventually building to when he wrote about eleven-year-old Malcolm’s fondness for Lyra in La Belle Sauvage, and so the link has always felt tinged with creepiness. The likelihood is that Lyra will still be twenty or so at the conclusion of the next book, having already travelled through multiple worlds, killed God, lost the love of her young life, lost her parents, accidentally betrayed her best friend, journeyed to the world of the dead, travelled alone – truly alone – across Europe to solve an ancient mystery and been the intended recipient of the Magisterium’s murder campaigns. The last thing she needs to end all that with is settling down with man ten years her senior who used to be her teacher and fantasised about her as teenager. She needs a therapist and a nap.

The final thing that bothered me is that The Secret Commonwealth appears to have made much of the original trilogy irrelevant. The three original books built toward Asriel’s multiverse war against God and saw the deaths of both the Authority himself and his megalomaniac regent Metatron. Many core characters died. Lyra fulfilled her prophecy and brought about the end of destiny. It was a Big Deal. And then we fast-forward ten years and nothing has changed. The Magisterium still reigns, Lyra is still in danger, and no one knows what happened to Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter and what they did to save Lyra and the universe. Of course, Pullman could be making a valid point about the nature of religious belief: that it doesn’t matter if the Authority lives or dies, because belief in God is irrelevant to whether or not he actually exists. The Magisterium invoke the idea of God to legitimise their power, rather than having that power bestowed upon them divinely by a real God. That or he’s making the point that no matter how epic your battle and how good your intentions, there’s no guarantee that good will triumph. Sometimes you kill your daughter’s best friend and build a basalt fortress in a distant world and sacrifice yourself into an endless abyss only for it to not mean shit. It’s a sad conclusion, but one that is plausible. However, if this was Pullman’s intention, I would like that to have been made clearer. As it stands, it reads like lazy storytelling that devalues the books that made me so keen to read this sequel in the first place.

I want to leave you with my crazy fan theory for the third book: that Olivier Bonneville is Lyra’s half-brother. La Belle Sauvage suggested that Bonneville Senior, the vile Gerard, assaulted Mrs Coulter, plus he spent most of LBS trying to take her child and say that he was the father. Both Olivier and Lyra have an unusual aptitude for reading alethiometers and can see each other in their visions. We also met Mrs Coulter’s brother and mother in this book – Lyra’s uncle and grandmother – so we know that Lyra meeting her extended family is already part of the story, which makes sense when you consider that her loneliness and lost purpose are key themes. Finally, we meet Olivier’s great aunt, a Greek princess, who takes to Lyra immediately but is clearly hiding something about how she knows Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel. I think that the princess is (Mrs Coulter’s mother) Maman Delamare’s sister, making Lyra her great niece too and Olivier Lyra’s half-brother. The Secret Commonwealth ended with Olivier catching up with Lyra on her journey, suggesting that their interactions will be important in the final installment. Yes, I have spent too much time thinking about this story.

That wraps up a year of reading and my monthly roundups! I considered not doing reading roundups in 2020, but have decided to persevere, because it’s good for me to consider the books I read more deeply and sum up my thoughts and key takeaways. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about reading this year – I’ve certainly enjoyed writing about it!

What did you read in December? Any recommendations?

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