Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni

18492200Nonfiction — print. Translated from the French. Harry N. Abrams, 2014. 467 pgs. Library copy.

When it comes to comics and graphic novels, I tend to be drawn to those on the nonfiction shelf. I find the format tends to make darker or complex topics more accessible and personalized than a long nonfiction tome. So I was intrigued by Squarzoni’s comic, which is subtitled “a personal journey through the science”, when I was browsing the library’s comics section.

This book grew out of Squarzoni’s efforts to present the French president’s political platform in a graphic format and the realization that he was writing about a topic — climate change — that he knew very little about. His partner, Camille, insists that Squarzoni will end up writing an entire book on the subject as he begins researching what exactly “climate change” is and, well, turns out she was right.

The book becomes an interesting blend of Squarzoni’s research, interviews with scientists and policy makers, and struggle to reconcile what he learns with how he lives his life. He has a rather off-putting obsession with how a storyteller chooses to start a story and devotes a number of panels to this question, including several on the movies he’s watching.

Once he moves onto the actual topic of climate change, Squarzoni makes a connection between our consumer-based economy — that is, the fact that economic growth only comes from increasing consumption of goods — to the increase in greenhouse gases and the destruction of the environment worldwide. And, like many people, he ends up wrestling with how to adopt the solutions being advocated by those he interviews into his own life.

Some of the solutions — reducing energy consumption, refusing to drive large vehicles or adopt other behaviors he sees as imports from America — are ones he’s already doing while others require government policy to change or an individual to sacrifice a convenience of modern life. At one point, he is offered what sounds like a fantastic opportunity in Laos and turns it down because he cannot overcome the guilt he feels over flying given its contribution to greenhouse glasses. Two years later, he and Camille travel to Montana to visit the very glaciers disappearing because of climate change. It is just not reasonable to expect him to never travel again.

Squarzoni’s difficulty with reconciling macro-changes to his life on the micro-scale fostered a lot of apathy within me as I was reading the book and, unlike others on the topic before it, I didn’t finish the book feeling as though I could rush out and try to change the world. After all, there are only so many light bulbs one can change, reusable bags one can carry, or car trips one can switch for public transportation.

But it also is a refreshingly honest addition to the section of the library devoted to climate change. And Squarzoni’s book lends a lot of credibility both through this honesty — climate change science is hard to understand, climate change is hard to address given there is no one band-aid solution — and given its its ability to breakdown the complexities of the issue into easily digestible bits through interviews and beautiful drawings.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

22061527Fiction — Kindle edition.  Riverhead, 2014. 568 pgs. Purchased.

In the aftermath of World War I, twenty-six year old Frances Wray and her mother are obliged to take in paying guests — a more polite term for lodgers that allows Mrs. Wray and the neighbors to ignore the family’s rather spectacular tumble in social standing. Their room for rent notice is answered by a young, married couple from the “clerk class” named Lilian and Leonard Barber, and the Wrays and Barber have to adjust to rubbing elbows with members of different social classes.

Frances may be uncomfortable with soliciting the rent check every two weeks, but she is far more willing to face the realities of life in 1922 than her mother is. And she has found cleaning and cooking for her mother helps keep her mind from dwelling on the hatred she feels towards her deceased father for leaving her and her mother in this position, on the what ifs in life.

The one person she is unable to stop thinking about, though, is Mrs. Barber, and  as the two grow closer, each of them ends up confessing a secret about themselves that society would shame them over. For Lili, it’s her shotgun wedding; for Frances, it’s the love affair she had with another woman during the war. These secrets tie the two women together, and the two of them become engaged in three criminal affairs of their own — one of the heart, one of self-preservation from an unhappy marriage, and one of homicide.

The lead-in to this novel lasts about an hundred pages and could have done with some serious editing. The minuet descriptions of cleaning and household drudgery became a chore (pun intended), and I likely would have set the novel aside had it not been the March selection for my book club.

Yet this all changed when the novel shifts from the first part — a more typical novel of historical fiction — to the second part, which is something more akin to a lesbian romance novel. That shift threw the story and the characters into unexpected and unexplored territory. A very sit up and take notice moment for me to kept me intrigued as the novel metamorphosed again into a crime thriller in the third part.

The three sections are tied together through the atmospheric and melancholic tone of Waters’ writing, which became one of my favorite aspects of the novel once the plot began to progress. It adds an air of mystery and darkness to the novel that particularly works perfectly in the last section as Frances has to reconcile the Lili of her mind with the realities before her.

And while the slow pace, the attention to detail was the source of much consternation from my fellow book clubbers but, as the novel progressed, it became clear that this reflected the state of mind of Waters’ protagonist. Frances has to pay attention to every situation and every point of view in order to keep her sexuality a secret, and neither woman is inclined to instigate something illegal in the eyes of the law.

What that illegal activity is, though, depends on the point of view of each woman, and Waters’ exploration of morality within this novel is fascinating. I would side with one woman, turn on her, and then change my mind all over again. And the beauty of Waters’ writing, of this story is that it keeps Frances and Lili from ever feeling truly exonerated in the eyes of both the law and the reader.

It may have taken me awhile to slip into this novel, but I am glad I persevered through those rough, first hundred pages. Even if no one else my book club could say the same.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2007. 21 hours, 45 minutes. Library copy.

Rather than return to Hogwarts for his seventh and final year at the wizarding academy, Harry Potter decides to finish Albus Dumbledore’s quest to find and destroy Voldemort’s horcruxs in order to vanquish the Dark Lord once and for all. The task was entrusted to Harry and Harry alone, although Dumbledore gave him permission to Ron and Hermione, and Harry refuses to include the members of the Order of the Phoenix in his plans.

A prudent choice given someone in the order leaked the plans to move Harry after he comes of age and, thus, is no longer protected by his mother’s love and then leaked where he was hiding out with the Weasley family. During the second ambush by the Death Eaters,  the Golden Trio — Hermione, Harry, and Ron — manage to escape to London and spend much of the year they would have spent at Hogwarts on the lam moving around the countryside as they try to formulate a plan to find and destroy the remaining horcruxs. The book culminates in what been’s expected since the first novel in the series — an epic battle between Harry with his friends by his side and Voldemort with his Death Eaters.

This novel was the one I was most excited about rereading as I made my way through the series for a two reasons: (1) I had such a emotional reaction to the death of two characters in this book that I wanted to see if that still held true and (2) I remembered the details of this book the least since I read it when was first released and then never picked it up again. The final battle and the way Harry kills Voldemort has always stuck with me, but the process of getting there? Largely forgotten, with the exception of Hermione, Harry, and Ron impersonating others to gain access to the Ministry and to Gringotts.

Rowling makes the interesting choice to separate and isolate her three main characters from the network of friends and family they have built up over the past six books. It seems to run counter to message of the other books: that you’re never truly alone if you know how to give and receive love. And then she separates them further by having Ron abandon Hermione and Harry, which helped to amplify just how much I loathe Ron Weasley.

I know, I know, he’s supposed to be the unsung hero of this book. He gives Harry the only real family he has ever known; he (rather suddenly) remembers parseltongue. He returns in time to save Harry from an icy death; he retrieves the basilisk fangs needed to destroy one of the horcruxes. He expresses concern for the House Elves demonstrating a growth in his maturity and ability to empathize with a marginalized group of individuals that he’s been raised to believe are happy in their role as slaves to the Wizarding community.

Yet he also knows how to play the victim card really, really well and I, personally, have zero tolerance for people who spend their lives whining. Take a few minutes to be sad and then make a plan to move forward with your life. And while I understand the locket amplified all his insecurities, it had the same effect on Hermione and Harry — who have their own insecurities about their places in the wizarding world — and yet those two managed to push past their insecurities to be there for each other. Someone needed to tell Ron to go sit in the car while everyone else had fun saving the world, I swear.

Separating out the Golden Trio from the rest of the characters was a particularly interesting choice when you consider how much of this book is devoted to expanding out the backstories of other characters, particularly Severus Snape and Dumbledore. Snape is unapologetically one of my favorite characters in this series, and his redemption in Harry’s eyes will always be one of the more savory aspects of this novel for me. But I also love how Harry has to learn that Dumbledore wasn’t always a hero, that he made mistakes as a young man that forever altered his life and how he chose to respond to evil within the wizarding world.

One of the hardest things about growing up is learning that your heroes are fallible; one of the best things about growing up is learning how multifaceted people, even your so-called villains, are. I love how Rowling allows the reader to experience this lesson along with Harry filled with all the self-doubt, shock, and growth that accompanies it. The ability of the reader to “grow up” with Harry is one of the greatest strengths of Rowling’s series, and I hope this is something new readers will get to experience now that the series is completed and there is no need to wait between books.

I would be remiss to post my thoughts without addresses the epilogue, which I’ve repeatedly seen compared to bad fanfiction. That was, admittedly, my reaction when I first read the book, especially when it comes to the names chosen for the future Potter offspring. I had a hard time imaging someone who lived such an exciting life would be happy settling down, raising three children, and doing rather mundane tasks like school drop-off.

Now that I’m older, I understand what Rowlings was trying to give Harry, Hermione, and Ron with the epilogue: a family filled with love living in a safe society that accepts them regardless of whether or not they’re Muggle-born, half-blood, or pure-blood. I can only hope the other marginalized beings in this series — the house elves and the squibs — received their own boring lives in the end, too.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Fiction — eBook. Amazon Kindle, 2012. Originally published 1874. 512 pgs. Free download.

Hardy’s novel focuses on the follies of the heart with the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene,  falling for the superficial rather than the practical. At the beginning of the novel, young Bathsheba tells her first suitor, a promising sheep farmer named Gabriel Oak, that she should never want to marry him because she’s afraid he could never tame her the way a wife needs to be tamed in order for the marriage to work. She also believes their stations to be life to be unequal; Bathsheba is a poor orphan with a lady’s education while Gabriel is master of his own flock of sheep with a mortgaged piece of land.

“I hate to be thought men’s property in that way, though possibly I shall be had some day…I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet.”

Following her rejection of Gabriel’s suite, Bathsheba’s fortune unexpectedly rises and she moves to Weatherbury to take up her position as farmer and owner of one of the largest estates in the area. Although Bathsheba establishes herself as a competent and capable farmer and mistress, she uncharacteristically and foolishly engages in the childish behavior of sending a Valentine to a man she does not love and is, much to her chagrin, thus pursued by Mr. William Boldwood, a gentleman who owns the estate next door.

His wealth and station combined with the fact that their two estates neighbor one another means Mr. Boldwood would make a fine match for Bathsheba, but the promise of wealth holds no attraction for Bathsheba in the face of Mr. Boldwood’s overbearing and unpleasant nature. He might have the personality to turn her into the submissive wife Bathsheba thought Gabriel would not be able to mold her into, but Bathsheba interest in becoming one has waned even further now that she has her own means of support.

She is, however, interested in becoming the wife of Sergeant Francis Troy, a officer with the “red coats” so often fawned over by females in other nineteenth-century novels. A smooth talker with a pleasing face, Troy utilizes his elaborate sword play (no, not a euphemism) to sweep the rather levelheaded Bathsheba off her feet, so to say. Bathsheba marries Troy and quickly learns that she cannot be the submissive wife she thought marriage would make her into when married to a philandering, drunkard still in love with the young girl he thought stood up him at the alter.

Troy’s antics and Bathsheba’s attempts to cover for him would drive the farm into ruins where it not for Gabriel, who came into Bathsheba’s employment after experiencing a great loss the costs him his farm and his flock. Bathsheba was hesitant to hire Gabriel given their history, but he insisted that he would be a good, obedient employee to her (and only here) and proves that over and over again.

“Thoroughly convinced of the impossibility of his own suit, a high resolve constrained him not to injure that of another. This is a lover’s most stoical virtue, as the lack of it is a lover’s most venial sin.”

Although this may sound like all the ingredients of a romance novel, Hardy’s writing and his insights in the complexity of how humans respond to the notion of live elevates this novel far above that other derisive label. Troy is, obviously, an example of how superficial love can be. Bathsheba marries him because she appreciates his good looks and his mannerisms. He is more attractive and more interesting than both Boldwood and Gabriel, and such appearances blind to her to the ugliness of his personality.

The poignant part of his inclusion in the tale, the aspect of his character that lifts him from villain to multifaceted character is the simple fact that he is in love with someone else. He acts the way he does, in part, because he’s known love and lost it. He’s had something beyond the superficial with someone else, and Bathsheba, who can only see his looks and appearances, will never be able to compete with or replace that.

“The rarest offerings of the purest loves are but a self-indulgence, and no generosity at all.”

Boldwood, for his part, is a warning sign that those appear best on paper might be actually be the worst of matches. He believes himself so in love with Bathsheba that he refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer, that he becomes utterly fixated on her. His infatuation becomes sinister and creepy, and it opens up the question of whether he “loves” Bathsheba simply because she is someone he cannot have. Would he grow tired of her if she married him, or would be become further obsessed with showing of his “prize”?

One of the ideas generating a lot of buzz both within the publishing and the entertainment industries is this idea of “strong women”. This idea that women should be kick-ass, superhero leads with female friendship that transcend discussing boys. In other words, more representative of woman in real life. And, of course, I agree with this idea and long to see more of characters like this. Yet what I love about Hardy’s work is that Bathsheba — strong, independent, and level-headed Bathsheba — is allowed to be multifaceted.

“Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness. Marriage transforms a distraction into a support, the power of which should be, and happily often is, in direct proportion to the degree of imbecility it supplants.”

She make a poor choice whilst simultaneously successfully running her farm; she has a strong relationship with her female employees that allows her to also be silly with them (see aforementioned Valentine). She also develops a deep bond with Gabriel that helps to explain why he was the better choice even without all the hindsight information of how life with Boldwood or Troy would work out. She evolves and she is human in a way not to often found with female characters of the twenty-first century.

With this novel, Hardy remains not only one of my favorite writers of the nineteenth-century but of all time. I adore his ability to capture the dialects of his rural settings, to paint such vivid and emotional pictures of where his characters live, and I continue to fall in love with the female characters he places at the forefront of his novels. And for those who have seen the movie, the pinnacle romantic moment between Bathsheba and Gabriel happens in the middle of the book rather than the end, which should be incentive enough to read the novel.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince By J.K. Rowling (Reread)

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2005. 18 hours, 31 minutes. Library copy.

Returning to Hogwarts for his sixth year, Harry Potter is horrified to learn that Severus Snape, potions master and a Death Eater that Harry’s beloved headmaster claims to trust with his life, has now taken over the Defense Against the Dark Arts post. Harry is convinced Snape’s true allegiances lie with Voldemort rather than with the Order of the Phoenix and, as such, is  playing Dumbledore for a fool, but Dumbledore dismisses these accusations at every turn and asks Harry to please concentrate on retrieving an important memory from the new potions teacher, Horace Slughorn.

This particular memory is the last one Dumbledore needs to finally confirm his understanding of how Voldemort has managed to evade death for the past sixteen years. Slughorn has refused to relinquish to him over the years, but Dumbledore believes Slughorn will give it to Harry in order to “collect” Harry for the club of chosen students that Slughorn is so proud of. Helping Harry in his effort to win over Slughorn is the Half-Blood Prince, a moniker self-assigned to the owner of an old, well-scribbled in potions textbook that ends up in Harry’s possession.

The book, of course, strains Harry’s relationship with his friends. Ginny and Hermione are both concerned about Harry following instructions from a book based on what happened to Ginny in the Chamber of Secrets, and Hermione is bent out of shape because the Half-Blood Prince’s notes are giving Harry such a large leg up over her in class performance. Ron, for his part, is upset because he thinks Harry slipped him a potion he won with the Half-Blood Prince’s help in order to correct Ron’s abysmal Quidditch performance.

More importantly, though, the book and the unfamiliar spells written in the margins help Harry evade the teenage girls trying to slip him love potions, complete an important quest for Dumbledore, and fight the vile Draco Malfoy, whom Harry becomes convinced has joined the Death Eaters over the summer and is now a plant for them at Hogwarts now that Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic have been chased out.

One of the reasons why I love rereading novels (and bemoan how I don’t do more of it since beginning this blog) is how I become focused on a different aspect of the story with each reading. In my 2011 write-up of this novel, I discussed how I felt like this book — the sixth in the series — served as a bridge between the fifth and seventh novels with the information gleamed about Voldemort’s past setting up how Harry would need to kill him in the seventh novel.

This time, I was largely focused on the budding romances between Ron and Hermione and, most especially, between Harry and Ginny. In the midst of all the death and destruction and the rise of the Death Eaters as lead by Voldemort, these four characters are still engaged in the very human activity of falling in love. Something that Dumbledore was quick to point out was completely missing from Voldemort’s life to Harry as the two explored memories related to Voldemort’s life before, during, and after his seven years at Hogwarts.

Harry refers to his growing attraction to Ginny as “the beast” throughout the novel. The moniker certainly makes sense given what acting upon these feelings could do to his friendship with Ron — the person Harry Potter cares about most, as we learn in Harry Potter and the Goblet Fire — and because Harry has largely lost all those who love him by this point in is life. Yet I find it a curious choice given the much more horrific things Harry has faced during his last five years at Hogwarts. Falling in love certainly seems easier than facing Voldemort and his followers over and over again, but maybe that was part of the point? Letting yourself be vulnerable — and, therefore, human — instead of being forced to be vulnerable is the true mark of bravery?

Despite my fixation on the romances introduced in this book, exploring the pasts of both Snape and Voldemort continues to be my favorite aspect of this novel. Rowling manages the rather impossible task of humanizing a villain casting Harry’s world into shades of gray rather than the stark black and white that was introduced in the first book.