Tag Archives: margaret atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Feminist Horror Story

Margaret Atwood has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I ever read. As a seventeen-year-old budding feminist, Atwood’s cautionary tale had a lasting impact on me, with certain scenes still etched in my memory. This week saw the release of the first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.

Handmaid's Tale 1

The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist nightmare where, as a response to widespread inferility, the government has taken control of women’s bodies. Fertile women are forcibly trained by religious leaders and assigned as handmaids to high-status couples who have been unable to conceive. It’s sex slavery hiding behind religious justification. I hope that anyone would be horrified by imagining this reality, but it’s particularly frightening as a woman to imagine what your life would be if your worth was determined entirely by your husband or ability to procreate.

Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (“of Fred”), a handmaid whose daughter was taken and husband shot as they tried to escape the country. The series opens with their flight through the woods, pursued by armed men. Being hunted like an animal anticipates Offred’s new life, in which she is essentially breeding stock. Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that Elisabeth Moss has the ability to project silent agony and repressed rage. This role gives her ample opportunities for both. I wasn’t initially sure about her decision to deliver the voiceover in a hoarse whisper, but it fits the tone of repression that permeates the story.

Handmaid's Tale 4

As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly cinematic. Light and shadows are both used in extremes, from lens flares to dark figures silhouetted against a window. A culture of extremity is also reflected in the handmaids’ uniform of a long red dress and white bonnet. When out in public, oversized wings are added to the bonnet to obscure their faces. Pop music is inserted sparingly at climatic moments. Although I found the music conspicuous in the first episode, the fact that it’s incongruous with the world being shown makes it effectively jarring. After all, speculative or dystopian fiction aims to show us how aspects of an imagined society bear a disquieting resemblance to our reality.

Although watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly joyless experience, I believe that it’s a valuable one. Margaret Atwood externalizes the Madonna-whore complex by creating a society in which women are explicitly categorized as virtuous wives or sexual handmaids. (There are also domestic servant “Marthas” and execution or exile.) This may seem like an impossible idea, but the aspects of this story exist around the world in different forms. Even in relatively liberated societies, women feel the opposing pressures to be sexy but not slutty, a good girl but not a prude. In a tumultuous time, I appreciate that creators are reminding us about what has been, what still is, and what we must be vigilant to prevent.

Handmaid's Tale 5

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Best of 2015: Book Edition, Part 2

These are some wonderfully odd, deliciously creepy, and beautifully written books. If you like them too, let’s be friends. Here are my top 5 books of 2015!

5. The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

After recently completing the MaddAddam trilogy, you would think that Margaret Atwood might be out of speculative fiction ideas for a while. But you would be wrong! The Heart Goes Last takes readers to a different but also disturbingly familiar future. To escape homelessness caused by a major economic collapse, a married couple joins an experimental community requiring them to alternate monthly between a comfortable home and a prison. This being an Atwood book, the situation becomes emotionally fraught and plot twists ensue.

4. Dreamer’s Pool, by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool

Reading Juliet Marillier is one of the most comforting activities to me. Her new series Blackthorn & Grim has many familiar components from her past books, but some new elements as well. Unlike the young women who usually narrate Marillier’s novels, Blackthorn has half a lifetime of traumatic experiences behind her. In Dreamer’s Pool she escapes wrongful imprisonment with a large man named Grim. The two settle in a faraway region, but Blackthorn’s work as a healer soon embroils them in a mystery involving the local prince’s bride-to-be.

3. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes writes literary mysteries with a supernatural twist. The Shining Girls features a time-traveling serial killer in Chicago. In the 1990s Kirby is one of his would-be victims who survives, then takes a newspaper internship in order to investigate her attack. The relationship between Kirby and her reluctant mentor at the newspaper is hilarious and ultimately touching. The story is sometimes frightening but very well-executed. Beukes paints the world as raw and starkly beautiful, which is a worldview that I find incredibly compelling.

2. Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends with Boys

I picked up Friends with Boys because Faith Erin Hicks is collaborating on a project with Rainbow Rowell. My exposure to graphic novels is limited, so I was shocked by the emotional connection I felt to the characters. The images gave me a strong sense of their voices and mannerisms without needing many words. Maggie is starting high school after years of being homeschooled with her three older brothers. There she makes her first female friend, and Lucy is such a cute, vibrant character. Friends with Boys is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

1. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River Cover

Dennis Lehane, I’m sorry I wrote you off for years because your books are shelved in the mystery section. What a fool I was! Mystic River is phenomenal as both a mystery and a character study. After an incident involving three childhood friends, Lehane jumps ahead to the men in adulthood while also giving the reader a strong sense of how they became the way they are. The mood of a blue collar Boston neighborhood permeates every page. I was completely immersed, enthralled, and astounded. (You can read my discussion of the book here.)

I hope you enjoyed this year’s retrospective. I certainly did!

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An Abundance of Books for Fall

Fall always seems to be a great time for new book releases. And while I certainly wouldn’t wish away the rest of the summer, I’m starting to get excited for new books from many of my favorite authors.

The Heart Goes Last on September 29!

The Heart Goes Last

Margaret Atwood most recently wowed the literary world with her MaddAddam trilogy. The Heart Goes Last has a different dystopian setting, but one can assume it touches on some classic Atwood themes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose? I’m excited by the fact that The Heart Goes Last seems to have a greater focus on relationships. In exchange for a comfortable home the rest of the year, a married couple agrees to spend every other month in prison. Then they both become obsessed with the couple that occupies their home on alternate months. Best case scenario, this book could occupy an interesting space between the MaddAddam trilogy and The Blind Assassin.

Carry On on October 6!

Carry On

Does this require any explanation? It’s Rainbow Rowell! Carry On is an offshoot of the fictional fantasy series that’s the obsession of Cath in Fangirl. A fictional world from within another work of fiction becomes a real life book. Yes, it’s all very meta in the best possible way. Carry On promises all the romance and emotion of her previous books but with the addition of magic. Since Rainbow professes to be primarily a fantasy reader in her own life, I trust her to explore a new genre. Not to mention this cover is so unexpected and BEAUTIFUL. I will be dancing all the way to the bookstore on October 6.

Career of Evil on October 20!

Career of Evil

I recently declared myself a fan of the Cormoran Strike mystery novels. Since I was almost two years late to the party, the third novel is already coming out this fall. I can’t wait to be reunited with Cormoran and Robin, and the plot summary promises that this mystery will require delving further in Cormoran’s past. As I mentioned in the previous post, I already have the first two books in paperback, so I will try to resist buying the hardcover. The library wait list is the answer for now. Obviously I’m not going to wait another year for the paperback release. Bless the prolific talents of Ms. J. K. Rowling.

Tower of Thorns on November 3!

Tower of Thorns

My love for Juliet Marillier is documented on the blog, but I haven’t talked about this relatively new series. I read Dreamer’s Pool, the first Blackthorn and Grim novel, back in January. In typical Marillier fashion, Blackthorn is a healer, but she’s of humbler origins than the Sevenwaters protagonists. Not unlike a good detective series, Blackthorn and her friend Grim help unravel a mysterious and probably supernatural happening while Blackthorn deals with her personal demons. The prose is as lovely as I expect from Marillier’s adult novels. I can’t wait to hold this hefty hardcover in my hands.

As much as I would love to purchase every single one of these books, I will be utilizing library requests in some cases. I’m a little behind on my reading goal for the year, which is often the case around this time, so these new releases should make it easier to catch up. Did I miss anything exciting?

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Best of 2013: Book Edition, Part 2

There was some stiff competition, but these books prevailed. Here are my top 5 books of 2013!

5. City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves

I love when a novel can entertain me and teach me something new. In the case of City of Thieves, I learned about the Soviet Union during World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad. Lev is a young man of Leningrad arrested for looting. Instead of receiving the usual punishment, he and an army deserter are sent on an unlikely mission to find eggs for a wedding cake. This book is both highly amusing and rather devastating, so it makes sense that the author is also an executive producer on Game of Thrones.

4. MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam Cover

My love for Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is well-documented on the blog, from Oryx and Crake to The Year of the Flood. The final installment came out this fall, and I was not disappointed. The book satisfactorily brings together characters from the first two novels with typical Atwood flair for precise details. As if that wasn’t enough, MaddAddam also explores the history of Zeb, perhaps the most enigmatic character from The Year of the Flood. His story brings the reader to exciting new corners of this frighteningly familiar future.

3. Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & Park

Meeting Rainbow Rowell was one of the highlights of my year. It was the culmination of a lot of fangirling on my part, and it all started with Eleanor and Park. One thing that I enjoy about young adult authors, and Rainbow Rowell in particular,  is that they don’t shy away from sentiment. Maybe they feel free to do this because their teenage readers are often highly emotional beings. Whatever the reason, Eleanor and Park will let you relive the agony and ecstasy of first love in the most delicious fashion.

2. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

The Giver Cover

I can’t believe that I didn’t read The Giver until this year. Several book-loving friends have reprimanded me for it. Once I had the book in hand, I read most of it in one night, which is something I rarely do. It’s a children’s book that raises some very mature questions. What is the role of pain, both physical and emotional, in human life? And if painful memories were removed, what would be the cost? Lowry examines these questions through simple yet powerful prose. This book deserves its status as a classic.

1. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl

Fangirl is the obvious choice for number one, but it’s also the honest choice. No other book made me cringe so much for its characters and rejoice in their triumphs. You know how teenagers in movies or TV always seem completely unreal? (In part because they’re usually played by twentysomethings, but also in their behavior.) That is never a problem in Rainbow Rowell’s books. Her characters feel so real that you want them to be your friends, or maybe feel like they already are. (If you want even more thoughts on Fangirl, the link is here.)

I look forward to another great year of reading in 2014!

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Best of 2012: Book Edition, Part 1

Last year I could only scrape together a measly five books for my list. This year it was easy to find ten books that I loved, and I probably have my bookstore job to thank for that. Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I don’t read much fantasy these days, but Neil Gaiman is a living legend. When I saw Stardust at the library, I decided that it was worth a read. The movie was also a distant memory, so I figured it wouldn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book too much. In fact, the two are such different entities that it’s easy to avoid comparisons. Gaiman performs an impressive feat by writing a fairy tale that feels unfamiliar. At the same time, his unsentimental tone reminded me of the original fairy tale texts that I studied in college.

9. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

It took some time for me to warm up to The Help. Eventually I fell in love with the characters, and there was no going back. As most readers probably know, it tells the story of a young Southern woman who wants to write a book about the lives of “the help.” The point of view alternates between Skeeter, the young white writer, and the two black maids who collaborate with her. I loved the descriptions of Skeeter’s experience writing for the local newspaper and her complicated relationship with Aibileen and Minny.

8. Seer of Sevenwaters, by Juliet Marillier

I may not read much fantasy, but Juliet Marillier is too superb to quit. I’ve been reading the Sevenwaters series since high school. If you want an epic romance/adventure set in ancient Ireland, well, they don’t come any better than this. I thought the series was going downhill with the fifth book, but Seer of Sevenwaters was a return to form. Although Marillier has a talent for plucky heroines, this time she offers a more thoughtful protagonist. Of course, there’s enough inner turmoil and outward adventure to keep things interesting.

7. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Madness, and Magic at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson

Sometimes the truth is more fascinating (and more frightening) than fiction. Erik Larson specializes in detailing historical events that make the reader say, “I can’t believe that happened!” This month I also read his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. It was entertaining and probably an easier read, but I ultimately prefer The Devil in the White City because I learned so much about turn-of-the-century America. (My full-length review can be found here.)

6. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The story of Oryx and Crake continues with The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s precise narration is perfectly suited for speculative fiction. The details of her not-too-distant future are inventive while still feeling like a plausible extension of the world today. I enjoyed this female-centered installment, which focuses on God’s Gardeners, a religious splinter group that is peripherally mentioned in Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood makes clear the complexity of the world that Atwood has imagined. I can only read and be amazed — and wait impatiently for the final book.

It was hard to narrow them down, but I did it. Tomorrow I will unveil the illustrious top 5!

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Best of 2011: Book Edition

I wish that I had read enough books this year for a top 10, but that just wasn’t the case. I mean, I read more than ten books, but most of them weren’t worthy of the list. And I suspected that you didn’t want to hear about the Christopher Marlowe plays that I read for a class last winter. You will notice that three of my five choices are young adult novels. What can I say? I know what I like.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

John Green has become a very big part of my life. He and his brother have been exchanging video blogs since 2007, and an entire community has grown around their videos. My friend Jenny told me about the “vlogbrothers” months ago, but I didn’t really investigate until after reading Katherines. Now my Christmas list contains John Green’s two other novels available in paperback. It’s already evident to me that he’s one of the great talents in young adult literature today. Katherines got its blog moment in the sun here. For the purposes of this list, I will just reiterate that it is intelligently written with an engaging premise and hilarious characters. Any YA lover (or book lover, really) will appreciate this novel.

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Sarah Dessen is an author about whom I can probably never be impartial. After all, she has been near and dear to my heart for 10 years now. What Happened to Goodbye was one of the most highly anticipated books in my reading life this year. While I can’t count it as her best work, I will say that it definitely lives up to her past novels. This book focuses in part on the world of restaurants. As a hardcore Dessen fan, I know that the behind-the-scenes knowledge comes from her days as a waitress at the Flying Burrito. I would recommend the book to Dessen fans of yore, along with her other two most recent novels.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have to say, I’m a sucker for this kind of story. The kind where most things seem almost normal, except for the one detail that makes it all feel horribly wrong. At first glance the narrator could be a woman reminiscing about her days at boarding school. However, from the first pages Kathy makes references to more mysterious aspects of her world. The novel is slow-moving, but Ishiguro is adept at doling out enough hints to keep the reader interested until the full purpose of the boarding school children is revealed. Written in a beautiful and impressively subtle style, it raises many questions about morality in medical science and the nature of personhood.  There’s also a lovely film adaptation that I would recommend — after reading the book, of course.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I reviewed this book very recently on the blog, so I won’t go into much detail here. Suffice to say that I have great respect for what Margaret Atwood has done in this book. It reminds me of her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, but for all that they both portray dystopian futures, Oryx and Crake has a very different vision. I, for one, found it wildly compelling.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

There was really no contest for number one. I could have easily included the entire Hunger Games Trilogy on this list, but instead I picked my favorite book in the series. In keeping with the unintentional theme of the book list, it’s both young adult and science fiction. Collins uses the best facets of the YA genre to her advantage, presenting fast-paced novels that still manage to be thought-provoking. There’s a rebellious teenage girl and a love triangle, but there’s also a critique of the voyeuristic tendencies in our culture, particularly a fascination with other people’s suffering. I like Catching Fire the best because it deepens the characters and complicates relationships before the action-packed third installment. These are books that inspire passion in readers. They were certainly my most exciting reading experience of 2011.


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Meet Oryx and Crake

At long last, Gentle Readers, here is the second of three promised book reviews. Next I chose to read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I did this with some trepidation because I’ve been out of the serious literature game for a while now, and her books tend to be heavy.

And heavy it was, in the best possible sense. Oryx and Crake is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which most of humanity has been wiped out by disease and environmental destruction. (And thankfully they have not come back as zombies.) In fact, Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy) might be the last human alive.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, stay with me! Due to his friendship with the brilliant scientist Crake, Snowman had a front row seat to the events leading up to humanity’s downfall. Add in an enigmatic woman named Oryx, and you’ve got an engrossing read.

Margaret Atwood’s novels are always slow starters, and it took me a hundred pages or so to really get into it. Some people might consider that a serious downside, but I believe it’s a necessary part of her writing. Atwood creates complex fictional worlds that cannot be fully explained in a few introductory chapters. Since this book has a strong science fiction component, the external world is just as complex as the internal lives of the characters. I lazed my way through the first few sections, but by the end I couldn’t put it down.

When I thought about it afterward, I realized that the text was designed to build momentum. At first the focus is on Snowman’s present, and flashbacks come as ambiguous snippets of memory. Then somewhere in the middle third of the novel, the narrative focus shifts to the past. It takes on the feel of a science fiction mystery, with the reader dying to know the events of Jimmy’s past that led to his bleak present.  The answer is well worth the time it takes getting there.

Is Oryx and Crake heavy? Absolutely. Atwood is an intense author dealing with dark themes. Is there Biblical imagery up the wazoo? You bet your English degree there is. Whatever literary tropes she uses, Atwood constantly amazes me with the depth of her imagination. I couldn’t read her books all the time, but I always enjoy them when I do. Her vision of the future is a perfect mix of the uncomfortably familiar and the uncomfortably strange. And most importantly, the small human dramas never take a backseat to the big science-fiction-y picture.

Oryx and Crake is the first book of the MaddAddam Trilogy. I mean, if I created this fictional universe, I would want to keep writing about it too. The second book, titled The Year of the Flood, is already out in paperback. I think an addition to my Christmas list is in order.

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