Wednesday, August 16, 2017



Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: dystopian, books on TV

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for years- numerous friends have recommended it to me and discussions about this book have bounced around on Facebook for the past year or so. I finally moved this book to the top of my currently reading list after Hulu released a TV adaptation of the novel.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**


The events in The Handmaid’s Tale take place in the United States in the not too-distant future (the novel was written in the 1980s but is still relevant 30 years later). Congress has been disbanded and the Constitution overruled by a group of elitists that set up a theocracy and rename the United States as the Republic of Gilead. This theocracy is also highly patriarchal- they reduce women’s freedoms one by one- in one day it becomes illegal for women to work outside the home and all their financial assets and credit cards are frozen. Add to this mix social instability due to environmental disasters that have contributed to declining birth rates.

This patriarchal theocracy also believes in and enforces strict gender roles according to their interpretation of the Bible. The theocratic government, set up by a group called “The Sons of Jacob” round up fertile women, separate them from their families, and force these women to become Handmaids to the childless elite. Childbearing by these Handmaids is placed on a pedestal in this society- there is a once-a-month ceremony where the male head of household has forced sex with his Handmaid- with the Wife in the room, holding down the Handmaid’s hands (yep, the Wife is in the room, sitting in the same bed. Pervy, no?). The Sons of Jacob cite Biblical precedent for this as well: “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 1-3, King James Version). The Sons of Jacob seem to forget all the drama and jealousy this caused between Jacob and the women in his life…



Life for Handmaids in The Republic of Gilead, as you can imagine, Is not kind. They are stripped of their former identity- a Handmaid’s name changes depending on which house she is assigned to; the Handmaids wear a uniform of red dresses (to signal their fertility and special status in Gilead). Women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write and are separated by a strict hierarchy based on fertility status and/or age. Young, fertile women become Handmaids, Marthas are childless women placed in servile roles, the Aunts are childless women who train the Handmaids on their roles and life within Gilead, enforce the rules, and deliver punishments. Older women or women that are viewed as corrupting influences or untrainable are sent to the Colonies to clean up nuclear waste or engage in backbreaking labor picking crops. Lesbians are branded as “gender traitors” and are usually executed by hanging.

In the book, these changes happened slowly over decades while in the TV show these changes happened in a shorter period of time. In the book, The Commander and Serena Joy are older with wrinkles; in the TV show they are around the same as our protagonist, Offred. Offred’s name from before is never mentioned in the book; on the show she confesses her birth name as June. In the book Offred/June never sees her husband again after her kidnapping and assumes he is dead. In the TV show we see Luke escape to Canada and rebuild his life while holding out hope that he will be reunited with June. The book and the TV show both end on a cliffhanger- Offred/June is taken away from the Waterfords but the reader/viewer doesn’t really know if it’s to her doom or newfound freedom.



I have mixed feelings about this dystopian novel- it’s not action-packed, the reader spends time in the protagonist’s head. After the cliffhanger there is an epilogue that takes place 200 years in the future and the epilogue is basically a transcript of a Canadian college conference on “Gileadan Studies.” I found this change in point of view to be jarring and a bit of a head scratcher- it doesn’t really answer the cliffhanger question. A friend of mine who has read the book thought that the point of the epilogue might be to point out that such regimes and extremism is temporary.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1984


Title: 1984
Author: George Orwell
Genre: dystopian fiction

I have a confession to make. I have never read the dystopian classic, 1984. Given the peculiar political climate in the US lately, I decided that now might be a good time to read the novel. It’s (obviously) set in 1984 London and the protagonist is Winston Smith. Winston decides out of the blue one day to keep a diary. Keeping a diary in this version of dystopian London is dangerous and illegal and Winston finds that he must enter his thoughts and musings in the blind spot of his home’s telescreen. The illegal diary begins a domino effect in Winston’s thoughts and behaviors that allow him to question everything in this society.

In this world, there are no one-dimensional televisions; the telescreens are a surveillance tool of the Party (Big Brother). The Party controls the population through the destruction and revision of the past; the past is rewritten so that the Party can take credit for accomplishments, victories, and inventions: “If all records told the same tale then the lie passed into history and became truth. Who controls the past controls the future?” Of course, if a citizen remembered an event that differed from the party line (pun intended), “how could establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”

The erasure of the past is assisted by the removal of all physical and written references to statues, memorials, and historical markers and all original records are modified and destroyed to reflect the new truth of the Party. Scraps of paper are discarded and incinerated immediately- can’t have any contradictory evidence hanging about, you know. The Party even changes the structure of the English language, truncating it as much as possible to that multiple definitions and nuances cease to exist. Speaking of ceasing to exist…in this world rebels and thought criminals are vaporized. Once a person disappears all records of their existence are erased and they briefly become an unperson before memories fade. 

Marriage is no longer a religious ceremony or an act of love but a duty to the Party since any children born of this union are the future of the Party. Solitude and individualism are looked down upon- all extracurricular activities and free time are expected to be used in service of the Party.
As if all this wasn’t depressing enough but Oceania (yep, countries and alliances have changed too), is constantly at war with her (supposed) enemies; in a war in which no progress is ever made. Winston finds out that this continuous state of war is a conspiracy to decrease wealth and upward social mobility among the common people.


So, all these plot points sound exciting for a dystopian novel but I found George Orwell’s writing style boring and I felt the book ended too abruptly and with no change in atmosphere or events than from the beginning of the novel (no hero’s journey). As a result, it has taken me most of the summer to read this book since there were more interesting books to read. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reading Hangover




Image result for sheldon i need answers



Title: Written in My Own Heart's Blood
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Genre: time travel, historical fiction, romance, adventure, books on TV

You see the above meme? (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory). This was me this past week. When I need answers while I'm doing my fun reading, I end up with a reading hangover the next day. What’s a reading hangover, you ask? It’s the sluggish feeling you have the next day after staying up too late instead of getting much needed sleep for work. Disclaimer: reading hangovers only happen when a person stays up too late because of “fun reading” (homework doesn’t count).
 I am reading the Outlander series and I finished reading Book 8 (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) today. This series deals with time travel (but not in a nerdy, technical, sci-fi way) and this is what I've had to deal with and why I also need answers at 1am....

**Some spoilers ahead**


 Seriously, if you have not read the first seven books, turn back now!




Don’t say I didn’t warn you…


*Claire Randall accidentally time travels from 1948 to 1743
*Claire travels back to 1948 to escape the Jacobite rebellion
*In 1968 Claire travels back to the 1760s to reunite with Jamie Fraser
*Her daughter Brianna travels back to the 1700s to be with Claire.
*Brianna's boyfriend, Roger, also travels back in time to the 1700s
*Now everyone is together in the mountains of NC
*Brianna and Roger have two kids but little Mandy is born with a heart defect so they must travel (backwards/forwards?) into the late 1970s so that Mandy can have surgery

So, in Book 8 Brianna and Roger’s son, Jem, gets kidnapped and Roger and Brianna think his kidnapper has taken back to the 1700s so off Roger goes to the 1700s
*At this point the reader knows that Jem is still in 1980 but Brianna and the kids are separated from Roger by two centuries and this is WHERE I DON"T NEED SLEEP FOR WORK, I NEED ANSWERS!!!
*Roger ends up going back too early and ends up in Scotland in 1739. He meets Jamie’s father, uncle and sister before tragic things befell the Fraser clan. He knows what’s going to happen to them but he can’t do anything about it or warn them because it will change the future and how Jamie and Claire meet….


This series had been on my to-read list for years- multiple people had recommended it to me but I never found the time to tackle the series until the books were turned into a TV show for the Starz network two years ago. I watched the first episode and was hooked; I checked out the first book in the series (Outlander) was hooked on that as well. Along with all the time traveling that keeps me up at night, is some buried treasure (seriously), the American Revolution (the battle scenes can get tedious if you’re not a fan of military science and strategy), some Scottish/American culture and a bit of romance. The books are HUGE (they are each approximately 800 pages)- they will make you laugh and cry. Keep the tissues handy as well as Google Translate for the French, Gaelic, and Latin phrases that are sprinkled throughout.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Last Girlfriend on Earth




Title: The Last Girlfriend on Earth
Author: Simon Rich
Genres: Short stories, humor, books on TV


I checked out this book after watching an episode of ManSeeking Woman. It’s a show where modern dating rules, anxieties,  and conundrums are mixed with the absurd. For example, in the episode I watched, one of the main characters dates Santa Claus. This is not seen as ridiculous because everyone believes in Santa Claus, he is a real person but it is scandalous- Santa is married, after all. Other short stories were about a man who is engaged to Mother Teresa, a Jewish man whose ex-girlfriend is dating Adolf Hitler, and the title story about a man who is dating the last woman alive on Earth. 
                                                          

 I normally don’t read short stories because a lot of short stories leave a lot to be desired in my opinion or they end on a cliffhanger. The short stories in The Last Girlfriend on Earth are mostly satisfying, snarky, and funny. There were a few that left me with a Huh? feeling but I enjoyed most of the stories within the book. I will be adding Simon Rich's other works to my "to-be-read" pile. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Title: Beyond the Wall: Exploring George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire
Editor: James Lowder
Genre: non-fiction, literary criticism, Game of Thrones, fantasy

I've been addicted to Games of Thrones ever since Jamie pushed Bran out the window in Episode 1; that's when I knew this was a show that wasn't going to follow the rules. I started reading the books and soon found out that Martin doesn't follow the rules of writing either. His characters aren't strictly good or evil, the good guy (or gal) doesn't survive every encounter, and children or harmed or killed...

While I'm waiting for Game of Thrones to return on July 16, I discovered this book to help tide me over until the winds of winter come howling onto my TV screen (see what I did there?). Beyond the Wall is a literary, mostly non-stuffy critique on some of the recurring themes on the show and in the books: power, gender roles, violence, magic, identity, etc.

Gary Westfahl in "Back to the Egg" explores why fantasy authors write prequels or side stories to supplement their already grandiose epics. This is something that GRRM fans have a love/hate relationship with. We want more writing from GRRM but the writing that is being released is not the writing we want (Hint: It's called The Winds of Winter. How many more years will you keep us waiting, George?).

In "Art Imitates War" (one of my favorite chapters), Myke Cole praises GRRM for his authentic portrayal of PTSD within the world of Westeros: "He got an essential and often missed aspect of PTSD exactly right: sometimes traumatic experiences profoundly damage a character, but sometimes they enfranchise and strengthen the sufferer" (74). Case in point? Arya Stark and Theon Greyjoy. They both experience massive trauma due to events surrounding them; Arya uses her trauma to survive and to channel her rage into assassin skills. Theon succumbs mentally to his trauma and becomes a shell of a human being.

Susan Vaught examines the moral ambiguity in the show and series. Much like our world, Westeros is not completely black or white but full of murky and questionable gray areas. Behaviors that are abhorrent, sinful and taboo in our world are mildly scandalous in Westeros (incest). Succumbing to personal desires instead of behaving in a manner that benefits the group or community is one of the top sins in Westeros (Robb Stark learned this the hard way).

"A Different Kind of Other" examines the role of "outsider" status in Westeros. While most books and TV shows present freaks/outsiders as morally upright and virtuous, or as a poor male seeking to restore himself to a position of power, Martin give his "outsider" characters more depth. Bran is a typical rambunctious boy until he becomes disabled; Samwell Tarly is overweight and non-violent to the despair of his father; Brienne trains as a knight even though she is a woman (she is also an ugly woman which is offensive to some of the male characters in the series). "They're disappointments, even freaks, to their families and cultures" (159). Unfortunately, not all outsiders are kind in this world (Varys, Tyrion). "Outcasts pay keen attention to rules, precisely so they can manipulate them in order to give themselves a fighting chance. They also keep an eye on other outsiders as they can often be valuable allies" (162).

The only chapter that I didn't enjoy in this book was about book collecting and book collecting statistics. It was boring to me and seemed out of place with the rest of the semi-academic chapters.

Winter is Coming

Friday, February 17, 2017

How Harry Cast His Spell

Image result for how harry cast his spell

Title: How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning Behind the Mania for J.K. Rowling's Bestselling Books
Author: John Granger
Genre: non-fiction, Christian non-fiction

I checked this out at the academic library where I work. I was intrigued that an author that was publishing a pro-Harry book would be published by an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers. Unless you have been living under a rock the past decade or so, you have heard about the concerns and controversy of Harry Potter by some adults, mostly because of the witch and wizard characters. Granger wrote this book mostly for them. When these concerned adults fixated on the witches, wizards, and (fake) spells (if they bothered to read the books in the first place), they missed the Christian symbolism in the books. If you're thinking, "What Christian symbolism?",  than you need to read this book too!

So what are the Christian symbols used in the Harry Potter series? Here are a few examples (I can't tell you all of them, you have to read the book for yourself!):
* the "mascot" of Gryffindor house is a red lion. A lion has been used as a symbol of God in the Bible and throughout English literature (i.e. The Chronicles of Narnia) (pages 19, 106-107).
* the phoenix was a symbol of Christ during the Middle Ages- hence the nickname of "The Resurrection Bird. "The phoenix here, of course, portrays not only the Resurrection of Christ but also the Christian belief that he has intervened for humanity and taken the curse of death upon himself" (102).
*One person, two natures symbolism (concept comes from the Bible) (Chapter 5)

Rowling also uses alchemical symbolism throughout the series to chronicle Harry's journey from boy to man, non-believer of magic to wizard. While we view alchemy today as a pseudoscience where medieval scientists labored in vain to turn objects into gold, in the world of literature, alchemy "can simply be defined as the transformation of something common into something special" (50). So alchemical "writing techniques" are used to highlight the conflict/journey/resolution of a character and they are used to edify the personal life and beliefs of the reader (page 31).

Other positive aspects of the HP series that Granger critiques are the Hero's Journey formula used within each book (Chapter 3), the emphasis on choice and free will (page 86), the dangers of prejudice (Chapter 6), the parallels of Harry's life to King Arthur (page 86), and the spiritual themes of each book (Chapters 11-17).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blog Spotlight



Instead of reviewing a book today, I want to spotlight two blogs that belong to friends/coworkers of mine.
  Charley Bears Does Life is an adorable blog written by Charley (with help from his mom). Charley is new to the blogosphere and will chronicle his life with his fur-sister Sky and his human parents. I look forward to reading about his doggie delights and adventures!

Photo courtesy of Charley and his mom

http://cneildavenport.com/ is owned by C. Neil Davenport, an aspiring writer, photographer, actor, and film maker who wants to change the world through the art of film. I look forward to reading (and watching) Neil's journey too.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, suit
Photo courtesy of C. Neil Davenport