The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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After years of answering no to people asking me, “YOU haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale???” I can now, finally answer YES!  And now that it’s been both a movie and a Hulu original series, I can crawl out from under the proverbial rock I’ve apparently been living under and show my face.

Offred, who never reveals her true name but who is now called this, is a Handmaid.  Her role in the current social structure in the Republic of Gilead is to become pregnant and give birth to a baby in order to repopulate the Republic.  Gilead has taken over what was the United States and has established a religious order, under which women have the sole purpose of reproducing and watching over the household and men essentially have complete authority over them.  It’s a dystopia that actually heeds backwards and justifies itself in claims of protection of the woman and eliminating the need for competition among women for men’s attention.

What is horrifying is the timeliness of this dystopian novel.  So many comments from the “Aunts” or teachers who indoctrinate the Handmaids in the book sound frighteningly similar to conservative republican comments, with their anti-abortion rhetoric which ignores the woman and focuses on the gathering of cells that happen to be inside her.  Or the hypocrisy, when the Commander (quite like our Commander-in-Chief!) who has his status because of his piety then shows his true colors by taking the Handmaid to a good, old fashioned brothel. Worst, anyone who is different, dissents, or can’t be broken to follow the new order is tortured and killed – and publicly so.

I know this book is fiction.  I know the difference between fiction and reality.  But as our current president chips away at our constitution and all that we’ve accomplished over the years since the 1960’s, I fear the difference between this dystopia and our reality will become smaller and smaller.

 

And I apologize that this book blog so frequently becomes political – but in the current day, it cannot be helped.  Please bear with me!

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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Elsa’s granny is certainly “different” –and Elsa knows how complicated, even burdensome, that can be.  But Elsa also knows that even while she can argue for hours, even days with her granny (mainly about the fairytale world they’ve constructed), she always knows that Granny has her back.  So what happens if something happens to Granny…?

Utilizing the world of fantasy, Elsa’s Granny helps Elsa escape a world in which she feels alienated and lonely because she is “different.” Unfortunately, because of how closely this is entwined with the actual storyline, there is vast description of this fantasy world, to which I personally felt disconnected.  These parts lost me a little.  On the other hand, the parts that were real pulled me back in.  And while I was not crazy about the fairytale parts, I do appreciate the brilliance of the author’s use of this as a vehicle to show Granny’s eccentric but steadfast show of love for Elsa.

What is most beautiful about this book are the characters.  They are real, imperfect, temperamental, sweet, and human.  And all are portrayed with such grace and subtlety in the course of the telling of the story.  The way the story is constructed, there seems to be a wall of characters built around Elsa, who function as a fortress to protect her and love her.  It is very moving and I have to confess that I did choke up at times.

All in all, it’s a beautiful story that slowly and very definitely works its way into your heart.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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Well, JK Rowling seems to have done it again.  We meet Harry once again, now as an adult with 3 children.  His middle son, Albus, seems to have inherited Harry’s knack for being awkward but charming, and his only friend is, shockingly,  Scorpius, the son of – you guessed it! – Draco Malfoy.  This unlikely pair get themselves into a mess of misunderstandings and potential unleashing of evil in the world, and Albus, just as his father did before him, shows his own form of bravery and a love that conquers all.

It is important to remember that this is a script of a play and not the rich, descriptive prose of a novel.  More is left to the imagination, and the story is left more to dialogue and direction.  That said, the plot is still full of twists and turns and catches the reader off guard as always.  There are still allusions to prior books and it builds on a knowledge of the world of Hogwarts and its history.  And it still remains as a testament to love overcoming evil, as all the Harry Potter books seek to do.

Having experienced the book release parties at midnight this past weekend and reveled in the enthralling enthusiasm among people of all ages over this book – A BOOK!! – I am still just overwhelmed by the gift of this author.  She has succeeded in revitalizing, almost single-handedly, a love of reading across generations.  She has given the world a gift unlike any other in history – and we must be thankful for this.

If you have not read the Harry Potter books, do it now.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.   Anyone can relate to them as they are fantastical but completely relatable.  They are brilliant and imaginative and just plain fun!

Thank you, Ms. Rowling – thank you!

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

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Joanna has just moved out to the suburbs and is looking to meet new friends.  She notices that while the men in town have a club of their own (that does not allow women to be members), the women do not – and worse, are not even bothered by this.  As she digs deeper into the history of the town, she sees that at one point, there was a women’s club and the women in town actually were once interested in things beyond caring for their homes and their families.  Something was up and she and her one friend, Bobbie, would get to the bottom of it.  But hopefully they’d do it in time…

Yes, I was probably one of the only women who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s who never either read this book or saw the movie before – so I was curious.  Little did I know how utterly creepy this book would be!  The idea that men would turn women into automatons that would only do housework and child rearing was both disturbing and outrageous, and quite a statement for its time.  The theme of squelching those who stood up for the rights of women was probably fairly radical for the very early 70’s, when this first came out.

Funny, though, because it seems that while this futuristic/farcical novel was written so long ago, and much has changed, much is still the same.  In so many countries around the world, women are still treated as Stepford wives.  In fact, right here in the good ol’ USA, our likely Republican nominee for president is married to one.  (Her hobbies are “pilates and reading magazines,” according to the New Yorker.)

As to the writing of the book, it is suspenseful and eerie, but I did feel like there was a gaping hole at the end, where there should have been more explanation about what happened to the women and how the transformation was accomplished.  I felt there was almost too much left to the imagination.

But if you haven’t read it, it’s a quick read that does get you thinking…  which is what books are supposed to do!

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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It is difficult to start to write about a book that has consumed me for the past 2 months.

This 1079 page book (about 100 pages are footnotes) takes place in a futuristic country which is a conglomerate of the US, Canada and Mexico.  There has been a restructuring and a Canadian faction is secretly trying to win back independence.  We meet 2 spies, each for the “other side” during a conversation they are having about their philosophical and political views.  We meet Hal, a student at a private tennis academy which happens to be the one his recently deceased father established.  We meet Gately, a former drug addict who is a counselor at a residential drug rehab facility that happens to be near the tennis academy.  And so on.   Gradually, what starts as a series of random-seeming vignettes is verbally knit into a fabric of intense and dense story.

The writing in this book is both brilliant and poorly edited, in my opinion.  The author has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world and his vocabulary, both real and invented, is extraordinary.   Scenes that he creates with his words become so tangible you feel you can touch and even smell the characters in them.  At times he changes the writing style to fit a character so drastically you wonder if you’re reading the same book.   And each character, whether tangential or not, is given a full description and many have their own minor “word-binge” about an event that sort of defines them as a character.  What detracts from this, though, is that sometimes these word binges are too long, too dreary or just too repetitive.  There are many times I felt that details could have been edited out.  More might have been relegated to the footnotes, although those were complicated enough as it was (the footnotes have additional story lines – not just explanations of the terms and abbreviations use, although some did).

And while there are some very funny and clever scenes, the tone of the book is pretty sad.  Most of the characters are depicted as having come from families with bizarre or abusive issues, who are trying to live their lives but who end up spinning their wheels and never get where they want to go.  Almost no one is happy, almost no one is fulfilled.  Most are searching and working to move ahead and are thwarted in some way.  Drugs and sexual abuse are pervasive and there is a feeling of hopelessness underlying much of the action in the story.

The inspiration for my reading this book stemmed both from the movie, The End of the Tour, which depicted the true story of the author’s book tour to promote this book in the mid-1990’s.  A young writer for Rolling Stone Magazine decided to follow him and write an article about the experience and the movie is about the philosophical conversations the 2 writers have about everything and the relationship that develops between the 2 of them.  It is a very touching movie and extremely well-acted and aroused an interest in the book, which got enormous critical acclaim.  The other factor was that my son proposed that we read it together so that we could discuss it along the way.  It was really his persistence that kept me honest and reading it till the end.  (Thanks Michael!)

So while this is not a “fun” read or a “light” read, or even a short read, it is an intense, educational, and literarily broadening read for anyone with a lot of time!

I challenge you!

 

 

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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I was very excited to read this book, as I had a bit of insight into the writing of this book.  At BookCon, in May of this year, I was lucky enough to attend a session with an author, an agent, and an editor to learn about the process of a book being published through the eyes of each of these essential figures.  It was this book that was discussed at that session, and each of the individuals was really interesting to listen to.  The author spoke of the arduous process of writing the book, delivering it to the agent, who initially rejected it.  It went back to the author, who sat on it for a year (during which she’d given birth to her daughter) and then she went about the process of trimming it down quite a bit.  The new version went back to the agent, who now liked it and passed it on to the editor.  The editor, in turn, then felt it needed to be filled in just a bit and so some detail was added to the book – and then it was published.  It was a surprisingly drawn out process, the making of this book.  It really made me appreciate how many authors spend years writing and possibly never get published.  On the other hand, those who do get published, may need to be flexible and responsive to many opinions.

Unfortunately, this book was very different from the books I usually enjoy – and I’m having a hard time trying to describe it.  It’s a futuristic glimpse of a woman, Josephine, balancing a boring/rote job with her life as a married woman.  Her boss remains throughout the story identified only as “The Person with Bad Breath” and never even attains a gender.  Her husband, Joseph, disappears frequently without explanation and somehow makes all the decisions about where they are to live, switching them from apartment to apartment with no input from Josephine.  The ending is something of a twist on each of their jobs and somehow makes a very bizarre statement about the determination of birth and death.

I think the problem with the story, besides the obvious bizarre details, is that none of the characters is at all real.  Even Josephine, who is the main character, remains 2-dimensional.  Her husband, Joseph, is even more remote and unrealistic.  I think this is intentional, giving each an automaton-like feel, but it does not do anything to really engage the reader.

Not my favorite, unfortunately…

Super Sad True Love Story (migrated from bookblogger)

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

I just finished this book and I’m still unsure as to whether I liked it or not.  It almost felt like work to read.  The love story between Lenny Abromov and Eunice Park begins with a fling in Italy during time abroad for both of them and continues as they return to a futuristic New York.  This new New York exists in a United States which has been demoted as a world power and is essentially a police state, which Lenny is learning the hard way.  In a very clever way, Shteyngart has taken familiar tidbits of our media-laden culture and driven them forward.  People wear “apparati” around their necks, essentially a cellphone-like device that not only streams broadcasts of individuals ranting and newscasts (much like our Facebook), but also is capable of projecting everything from your current net worth to your cholesterol levels.  There is some sarcasm in this but there is also a very dismal look toward our future, as this story unfolds.

I think the reason this book felt like work to read was that not only was the overall outlook so daunting, but the characters, mainly Lenny and Eunice, were not even very likable.  I was curious to hear what would come of New York City more than what would come of Lenny and Eunice.  I think the so-called love that existed between Lenny and Eunice was the kind of stupid love that existed between Romeo and Juliette (another unexplainable love story) — it just doesn’t make any sense.  Lenny sees her and is infatuated with her and she treats him like dirt and he continues to love her .  And then she begins to love him!

The book is extremely imaginative and interesting for its foresight and criticisms of our current culture.  It makes a strong statement about our current lack of value for education and reading and our constant need for media of any type.  However, it would have been more engaging if the characters had more charm and if their super sad love story was just a little more true.