The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale tells what happens when a culture ruins their environment and steals the autonomy of women due to a decreased birthrate. Its scary and horrifying. Healthy babies are prized over a woman’s right to her own life. Women are separated by their ability to have children, higher class women, working class women and women of color are just sent away as not needed.

In the world we live, this tale is too reminiscent of politicians preaching about the sanctity of life while depriving poor people, especially people of color, basic human dignities. I originally read this book years ago and it didn’t have the same horror I felt this time.

This book is so well written and so horrifying, Read May 2017.

The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a magical tale about two old magicians and a contest between their protégées. The two magicians have an ongoing battle about which of their two different methods of training new young magicians is best. In order to demonstrate who’s way is better, they pick two untrained children and set about teaching them everything they will need to out-magic the other.

Celia and Marco are the young magicians and their arena is a magical circus that travels the world. The circus grows with new tents filled with some mechanical and mostly magical tricks to lure the circus goers into an unbelievable world. While the circus has many followers that age, no one in the circus or involved behind the scenes appears to be aging at all. While this is fine for some, others are bothered by the never endingness creating a sense of madness in some.

While Celia and Marco join the circus as rivals, they soon find that they stop trying to outdo one another and instead try to bring pleasure to each other. This is not what the old magicians wanted and they try to stop the new lovebirds since the contest only ends on their terms.

This is a fun, creative read filled with wondrous circus tents meant to appease every human sense. I read this for book club and it was a friend’s favorite recent book. While I wouldn’t go that far, The Night Circus really transported me to another, much more magical, world.

Read September 2015

California

In Edan Lepucki’s California, the US government fell and all that is left are citizens fighting for what they need. Throughout the novel, we slowly learn how the US fell and unlike many post-apocalyptic books, there wasn’t just one event. There were several cataclysmic weather events around the country (probably climate change related) and earthquakes (good ole mother nature) that separated parts of the country, leaving each group on their own.

We meet Cal and Frida, a young couple who fled from LA to find their own life hidden in the forest. While Frida isn’t the most helpful on their small farm, Cal had gone to school at a strange, survivalist school, which had remarkably remained open when everything else was falling apart, and he was able to grow enough to sustain them. After several months, they find they have neighbors and strike up a friendship until the family commits suicide in their nearby home. Frida finds herself pregnant, somewhat of a miracle on their survivalist fare, and begins to worry about how a small family of 3 will survive all alone.

Cal finally tells Frida that he knows that theres a settlement nearby, within a few days walk, but it is not welcoming and he worried what would happen if they wandered into any settlement asking for help. Back in LA, only those with means lived in Communities and they didn’t let anyone in who couldn’t bankroll their way in. Faced with solitude and security or the unknown, Frida decides she needs to see what else is out there, and Cal agrees to go along.

This was an interesting book since not only did it deal with the post-apocalyptic world, it also death with what happens when someone is elected to lead with almost ultimate power. Those in power in the communities had a reason to keep people out, but what about the revolutionaries who fought against the communities. How can they survive? The book may have dragged out a little for me, but once Cal and Frida seek out the settlers and find a community with so many arbitrary rules and leaders, I was hooked. And the ending is just as dramatic and awful as most great novels like this.

Great read, highly recommended!

Read July 2015

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night is Deborah Harkness’s second novel following Discovery of WitchesAs from my review and memory, I liked the first novel and was looking forward to reading this. Shadow of Night is a continuation of the story and picks up where Discovery of Witches ends.

We pick up the story with Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont (or Roydon, or de Clermont) crashing into England in 1590. Diana has to immerse herself to this new world and Matthew’s former life, while Matthew gets to pick up with his old friends, many of whom he’s not seen since the 16th century. Matthew’s friends include, Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, and many other names recognizable from history and science classes. It makes sense that a powerful vampire would cavort with powerful people in all periods of time, and history only remembers those who had the power. But it felt contrite. Its like Harkness picked up an almanac to find interesting characters that lived in this time period and couldn’t help putting them all into her novel.

The romance continues between Matthew and Diana as they are wed formally by the custom of Matthew’s powerful father. We learn more about Matthew’s past and his family, plus interesting things about Diana’s lineage. I learned more about the clothing of this period that I ever thought I wanted to know. All the while, Diana is trying to find Ashmole 782 and learn more about her witchcraft. Throughout this novel, Diana makes friends everywhere she goes, including an unwelcome friendship with Holy Roman Emperor while in Prague. Its been awhile since I read the first in the trilogy, but I remember Diana being aloof and almost friendless. Maybe I have it wrong, but I felt like her character changed too much. Instead we have a character that gets everyone to like her and gets what she wants even under unlikely circumstances.

Overall, I was disappointed in this book. I don’t know if it was the change in characterization or the fact that the story felt too much like a romance and not a supernatural thriller. But there was something missing. This is a long book and it felt like a chore to get through it. I remember being captivated by Discovery of Witches and that wasn’t the case with Shadow of Night. As with all books that I don’t like, I can share the blame of disliking it. Who knows if the sophomore book wasn’t as good as its freshman performance, or I was somehow expecting something different. Depending on time, I might still read the third in the trilogy, if only to see how the characters, to which I’ve now devoted over 1,000 pages of reading, turn out.

Read January 2015

1984

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic, terrifying novel about what would happen when the everyday person starts giving up more and more freedoms for the unknown threat of war. This novel could have been written today and called 2084, so timely is the topic when the NSA is accused of spying on other country’s prime ministers and people are having text and phone calls recorded without a warrant. All for the greater good.

The most brilliant part is that Orwell uses language as a type of mind control. How the slow elimination of words limits how one can think of any given circumstance. If there’s no word “bad”, the only way to describe the feeling is “ungood” which changes the sentiment. Even the different ministries whose role is the opposite of what we understand the meaning of the words: Ministry of Peace deals with war, Ministry of Truth deals with lying, the Ministry of Love which tortures the citizens, and the Ministry of Plenty whose role seems to be to limit goods so everyone is on the brink of starvation at most times.

War is the common enemy of the people and no one must notice that the enemy keeps changing yet the circumstances never do. Hate is cultivated by having daily sessions of group hatings. People don’t disappear, they miraculously never existed. All this can be accomplished when the mind is controlled. When the individual stops the ability to think and just regurgitates.

Orwell’s character Winston is doomed because he cannot forget. He doesn’t have the ability to doublethink and he has a fondness for truth and accuracy that he is unable to change. Through Winston’s eyes we see how destructive a society like this it. How the younger generation innately knows that something is wrong, but they follow the motions because they know nothing else. When there’s no one to trust, what happens? When there’s no history to learn from, how can there be a rebellion?

Great novel! I was surprised that it was such an easy read for something written 50+ years ago and how relevant it is to our complex world today. Even with the futuristic technologies from Orwell’s mind weren’t outdated. It felt like a contemporary piece written on the current world’s situation.

Read November 2013

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a remarkable story about taking a below average man and turning him into a genius within weeks. Charlie Gordon is a “mental retard”, using the vernacular of the time, who is able to maintain his own apartment and job with the assistance of his uncle’s long time friend. Charlie agrees to participate in an experiment where his intelligence should increase by at least 3x, which is what has happened to the only living participant to have undergone the treatment, a white mouse named Algernon. Even before the operation, Keyes makes clear that Charlie wants to be smart and he’s willing to work really hard at it. In testing, Charlie gets very frustrated that a mouse is smarter than him and hopes with the experiment that he will be able to beat the mouse. He has no greater understanding of potential complications or the societal impacts from the surgery. He has a simple understanding of his world and very little to no understanding of what the experiment might do to him.

The format of this novel are the diary entries that Charlie Gordon writes from the beginning of the experiment until the end. We witness the spelling and grammar changes as well as the comprehension and knowledge gains as time goes on. As Charlie’s intelligence increases he is able to recall scenes from his childhood and understand them from an outside and new perspective as to where his family is and how he ended up at a bakery working for his uncle’s friend. As his intelligence increases he slowly loses the life he had and gains new friends from the experiment. But as his intelligence surpasses those around him, Charlie becomes bitter and alone as he tries to unravel his past and use his new intelligence to protect his future.

This is a very modern look at the complications behind intelligence and for most of the novel I felt like this could have been written about today. Today we very rarely lock people in institutions, but when we look at someone who is mentally slow, do we see the person behind the blank stare? Or are they still treated like secondary citizens not worthy of our time and attention? Maybe we’re a little better than Charlie’s bakery friends and we don’t taunt and tease, but are we treating them humanely?

Very compelling story and made me question how I treat those who are not on the same level of intelligence. Just as Charlie treated the doctors when he was had a high IQ so he was treated when he had his low IQ. We should always look behind the eyes and see the person behind them and treat everyone with more empathy. Great novel and very thought provoking.

Read October 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of fantastical short stories that take something that is known and warp it into something almost unrecognizable. In the first story, the vampires suck on lemons to ease their need for blood and are stagnating in a 600 year old relationship. But they’re hoping to keep going since they’re the only vampires they’ve ever met. Its a story of survival and loneliness.

In “Reeling for the Empire”, young girls believe they sign on to become a silk worker for the empire and have found a way to better themselves and their family circumstances, but really have been sold into slavery. When they arrive at their factory, they are imprisoned and must begin producing silk. They mutate into silk worms and are required to produce their own silk for the empire and their own comfort. This story is a creative fantasy of what factories once promised and how they slowly destroyed so many people.

Some of the other stories weren’t as compelling as these two, or maybe I just didn’t give them the time they needed. I wasn’t expecting a series of stories when I picked up the book and it was a little off putting. However, once I got over my own expectations, the style of the writing is great and the creativity shines through and some of the stories were a great read. I don’t think I devoted enough energy into some of the stories to really figure out what Russell was trying to accomplish, but these two stories really stuck with me.

Mid-reading, I heard an interview on NPR with the Karen Russell since she just won an award for her writing. She sounded so down to earth and normal, that its amazing that her mind created these different worlds for her characters to try to survive.

Read September 2013