EXPeriencing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood [The Novel]

Cover image via.

I had always heard Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a disconcerting dystopian novel. Nothing encouraged me to pick it up, though. It was simply a book written before I was born about some hypothetical “What if.”

And then Donald Trump was elected president, a man who multiple women have accused of sexual assault, and yet he gets to sit in the Oval Office and enact laws (or attempt to). If anything is illustrative of white male privilege and the need for feminism, it’s this, our new reality.

“I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”

Knowing things could somehow still be worse, and having seen previews for the Hulu adaptation, I asked my sister to buy The Handmaid’s Tale for me for my birthday.

I read the book on my deck in the warm sun. I read it snuggled on my couch under cozy blankets. And yet, I couldn’t quite shake the chill that crept up my spine with every page.

Atwood thrusts you into the life in the new United States–Gilead–a nation that has been taken over by a religious right that strips women of their rights. They are no longer able to own property, make their own decisions about money, or even read. Women (the lucky ones? It’s hard to say.) are classified into three categories: Wives, Marthas (housekeepers), and Handmaids (breeders). Human reproduction has plummeted, and now Handmaids, those women with the most viable reproductive systems, are tasked with conceiving children. Not for themselves, but for the families they are tied to.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

“Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”

You almost want to read the novel at arm’s length. The main character, Offred, describes things with almost detached interest that makes you similarly want to detach yourself. But you can’t. Especially when Offred tells the reader, “I don’t want to tell this story.”

Those parts, the parts Offred doesn’t want to tell you, are where the novel gets too real. The flashes of life before Gilead are an America that looks remarkably similar to our own. There are subtle, slow changes that are easy to overlook, that everyday citizens think they’ll work through. But then it’s too late and too much is different and resistance isn’t just a hashtag or a march but a death sentence.

Offred’s tale isn’t one of information and facts, but of humanity and emotions that can’t be undone by a religious regime. It shows the dangers of a few at the top holding all the power, and how the erasure of science and reason in favor of piety can have devastating consequences for society.

The world of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t as far away as it should be. But living Offred’s story through her eyes ensures I will fight tooth and nail to keep that reality far, far away.

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Advertisements

EXPeriencing ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Cover image (and a more comprehensive review) via.

As an introduction to Zadie Smith, Swing Time may not have been the best choice. While I did enjoy the novel, Goodreads comments tell me it’s not as good as her earlier White Teeth or On Beauty.

That said, as a standalone novel without the comparison to Smith’s other works, I thought it was a fascinating coming-of-age tale of two girls—one who fancies herself a dancer, and one who truly has talent—who become women with quite different lives. From the narrator and her best friend’s childhood dance classes, to the narrator’s work and subsequent dismissal from her job as a pop star’s assistant, Smith jumps back and forth in time to paint a picture of how two similar childhoods can become very different adulthoods.

One of my favorite narrative elements of Swing Time is that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the entire novel. I find this to be a masterful storytelling technique, that 400 pages can go by, you know the entire life of a character, and yet, you never learn her name. This of course is a far cry from many of the stories I tried to write as a teenager that started with my main character examining herself in the mirror so as to perfectly describe her features before her mother calls her name telling her to come downstairs…

I also found Swing Time to be an important read simply because most of the main characters are people of color. In our new America, it’s more important than ever to read books about brown women written by brown women.

It’s taken me a while to write about Swing Time, and in the time since I read it, the characters haven’t really lived with me. I finished the book and they faded from my thoughts rather quickly. The story sucked me in, but it spit me out pretty fast.

If you like coming-of-age novels and want to read more books by and about people of color, I do recommend Swing Time, but maybe start with another one of Zadie Smith’s novels if you’re more curious about the author’s storytelling than this story’s characters.

EXPeriencing ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

Cover image via.

Banned books, particularly those by women of color, always seem to be the most beautiful.

I have a long list of books to read on my Goodreads account, and when I was making my 2017 reading challenge, I decided it was high time I made a dent on that list. As I was scrolling through, I saw The Color Purple and I knew I had to make that one of my first reads of the year.

I’m so glad I did.

My previous knowledge about The Color Purple came from watching the 1985 movie version with Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover. Watching it as a kid in the ’90s meant I didn’t quite understand what was happening other than Whoopi Goldberg’s character had a rough life and Danny Glover’s character wasn’t very nice.

Fast-forward 20+ years, and I’ve discovered there’s so much more to The Color Purple than I ever imagined.

The story is told in letters, mostly by Celie. The letters begin when she’s 14 and span her whole life. First they’re written to God, then to her sister Nettie. They depict an arduous life on sharecropper farms in the south. And Celie suffers. She is abused—physically, verbally, and emotionally—by her father, her husband, and the woman her husband loves. Through her letters, Celie recounts her relationships with her family and her friends in their small community, and how those relationships bloom and change throughout her life. Celie begins the novel as a down-trodden individual, but grows into a strong, confident woman. The transformation is slow over the decades, but every new letter reveals a new facet to Celie that we didn’t previously know.

I love how The Color Purple is written: in letters in Celie’s dialect. I’m sure reading dialect isn’t everyone’s favorite, but when it’s done well, as Alice Walker has done in The Color Purple, it tells a story like no one else could. It has to be Celie’s voice in her letters, and no proper grammar is going to get that job done.

The Color Purple is the second book by a black woman I have read in the past three months. In 2016, I read a whopping one book written by a black author. As an addendum to my 24-book reading challenge for 2017, I’m going to ensure that at least half of those books are written by women and men of color. Good books shouldn’t be dependent on the author’s ethnicity, but when all the books you read are by white people, it’s probably time to broaden your horizons. #WeNeedDiverseBooks isn’t just for children and young adults. Particularly as we head into this new US administration, it’s time to broaden our horizons and read books we normally wouldn’t by people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions than us.

You may learn a thing or two.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

EXPeriencing the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Cover image via Read, Write, and Read Some More.

The moral of this blog post is to always listen to book recommendations from your friends who work in publishing. When publishing people personally recommend books, you know they’re good. And my friends were absolutely right about Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy.

In my last blog post, I had just started Siege and Storm, the second book of the trilogy. The trilogy got better with every book. Siege and Storm introduced new characters and the conflict grew more dire. In Ruin and Rising, the finale of the trilogy, the stakes were painfully high, the characters were defeated left and right, and through it all, star-crossed lovers fought their fate.

I recognize that’s a hopelessly vague summary, but when you’re talking about the third book in a trilogy, everything is spoilers. I don’t want to give anything away if you’re going to check out the trilogy—and you should. I read all three books in 15 days total, and the only reason I didn’t read them in one straight sitting is because I had to work.

My favorite thing about this trilogy is that the characters feel so very real. Alina, the main character, grapples with her sun summoning powers, and the weight of saving Ravka is on her shoulders. But she’s also weighed down by love for her best friend Mal, the roguish prince who would marry her for a strong alliance, and the relentless pull to the Darkling whose tyranny is driving Ravka into darkness. No one in the series is perfect, everyone has external and internal battles to fight, and there is loss. So much loss. Of lives, loves, home, alliances, everything. Alina is not perfect, and her side is not winning. All of this makes for such a compelling read that you can’t put the books down. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You hope it will be a victory… but so often it’s not.

The further I read in the Grisha Trilogy, the more I couldn’t help but compare it to the Hunger Games Trilogy—and the Grisha Trilogy wins. Hands down. Everything that annoyed me about the Hunger Games seemed to be done “right” in the Grisha Trilogy. Katniss wasn’t perfect, of course, but her flaws all seemed to be tied to men. Alina struggles with love, too, but it comes second to her duties as the Sun Summoner. She’s willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to do what’s right for Ravka.

I was annoyed when reading the Hunger Games that there was so much violence, but no cussing, and no sex. Characters were getting ripped apart—literally—but Peeta and Katniss never did more than kiss, and there wasn’t a single cuss word to be found in the books. The Grisha Trilogy feels more real. There is quite a bit of violence, but Ravka is in full-out war. There is some cussing—not as much, perhaps, and real soldiers and young adults, but enough in the right places that it feels natural. And, it’s very clear that some of the characters have and/or have had sex. They’re young adults. That’s what happens when they love each other and they might die. I felt at times that the Hunger Games tries to shield readers from sex and bad words, which is a bizarre juxtaposition to the violence that fills its pages. The Grisha Trilogy builds a real world and shows readers a truthfulness not just of war, but of being a young adult and what it means to love.

I look forward to starting Leigh Bardugo’s new series built in the same world as Ravka, Six of Crows. And if you’ve read any of the Grisha Trilogy, hit me up. I need to talk through my feels with someone.

EXPeriencing Escapism & Inspiration through YA

Cover images via Kirkus and Leigh Bardugo’s website.

The 2016 presidential election concluded nearly a month ago, but I don’t think it’ll ever be behind us. Not when our president elect is tweeting his frustrations at a satire comedy show and upsetting international relations.

That’s why I needed some escapism as we head into the end of the year.

Earlier this fall, in an attempt to save money and stop cluttering my bookshelf (a.k.a, my guest room floor), I got a library card for my local library. The first book I picked up was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’d never read it, and it was a beautiful, heartrending book. And as you can imagine, it was not a light read. So as Election Day neared, I wanted to read something light. Something that wouldn’t make me look at the wrongs of our past and fill me with dismay.

I picked up the sequel to the newest series by my favorite young adult author, Libba Bray: Lair of Dreams. As far as not looking at America’s past and feeling shame, fear, and distress, I definitely failed in my choice.

Lair of Dreams, part of the Diviners series, is set in 1920s New York City. The racism and misogyny of the day is enough to make you want to throw things, but Bray’s strong diverse cast of characters helps show the wrongness of those ways–and that there’s hope to overcome it.

Despite the fact that we live 90 years later, those reminders are apparently as relevant as ever.

“America had invented itself. It continued to invent itself as it went along. Sometimes its virtues made it the envy of the world. Sometimes it betrayed the very heart of its ideals. Sometimes the people dispensed with what was difficult or inconvenient to acknowledge. So the good people maintained the illusion of democracy and wrote another hymn to America. They sang loud enough to drown out dissent. They sang loud enough to overpower their own doubts. There were no plaques to commemorate mistakes. But the past didn’t forget. History was haunted by the ghosts of buried crimes, which required periodic exorcisms of truth. Actions had consequences.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

Thankfully, the mystical elements of Lair of Dreams provided enough escapism that I didn’t feel I was delving into a history lesson for 1927. That’s exactly what I was looking for. The racism and misogyny is certainly present in the novel, but mostly for historical reference. The real conflict comes from ghosts and magic and secret government programs. The conflict and the strong characters drew me in and wrapped me in their magic, and I was happy.

To keep the escapism train going, I finally decided to check out a YA series my publishing friends have been gushing about for years: the Grisha trilogy from Leigh Bardugo. I picked up the first novel, Shadow and Bone, just before Thanksgiving and devoured it in four days. I started the sequel this afternoon and the third book is ready and waiting on my kitchen table.

While Leigh Bardugo’s world is filled with war, it’s also filled with gender equality. That’s Refreshing Element #1. Refreshing Element #2 is that it’s set in a fantasy realm she invented, and it’s not based on Western Europe, but rather Russia. Despite how much Russia has been in the news, Bardugo’s Ravka is completely new and I can process its history without having to think forward to current U.S.-Russia relations.

Refreshing Element #3: Like Bray, Bardugo’s world features a strong female lead, reminding me why I’ve loved YA since I was 12. In today’s world where the most qualified woman in the country can run for president but lose to the least qualified man on Earth, seeing strong young women in action fighting government cover-ups and tyrannical mages gives me hope for women and girls today. If these are the writers and their heroines we have to look up to, I am reassured that our fight over the next four years won’t be in vain.

“The story of America is one that is still being written. Many of the ideological battles we like to think we’ve tucked neatly into a folder called ‘the past’—issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, civil rights, justice, and just what makes us ‘American’—are very much alive today. For what we do not study and reflect upon, we are in danger of dismissing or forgetting. What we forget, we are often doomed to repeat. Our ghosts, it seems, are always with us, whispering that attention must be paid.” —Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

EXPeriencing ‘Life of Pi’

I’m not one to belabor seasons. As much as I love the warmth and long days of summer, I look forward to crisp leaves and the nip in the air that comes with fall. But as much as I’ve been looking forward to fall this year, it’s felt like a long time coming. September was more like August Part Two, and just this week it was still in the 80’s. But today, finally, it was cold and raining, and leaves were hitting the ground almost as frequently as the raindrops.

Which made me think back to the books I read during summer’s end, and I realized that I haven’t talked about them at all. They’ve been hanging out in my head for more than a month at this point, and if I don’t write about them, I might go crazy. Or maybe I’m just itching to write and this is my excuse.

Either way, I need to write about LIfe of Pi, which I read at the end of August. What an unexpected story. I recognize I’m over a decade late to this book, and at this point most people have probably seen the movie, too, but wow. This story surprised me from page one, and the ending has kept me living with this story for months.

If you haven’t read this book yet, you may be like me and think it’s about a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. But there is so much more to it than that.

The book doesn’t start on the lifeboat with a boy and a tiger. (Actually, once we get to the lifeboat it doesn’t even start with a boy and a tiger, but a boy, a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra.) Well before we ever reach the Pacific Ocean, the book details Pi’s backstory–which makes sense why the book is called Life of Pi and not Pi Trapped on a Lifeboat with a Tiger.

Pi’s story in itself is fascinating, but what I enjoyed most at the beginning (surprising even myself) were the long, nuanced religious musings about Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Pi considers himself Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, and it was interesting to read about how Pi came to participate and appreciate all three of those religions.

While the beginning of the book isn’t about Pi drifting lost on the ocean, a majority of the book is just that. It, too, was fascinating. It actually surprised me how much of a page-turner this was. I often set the book down at night wondering what was going to happen next. Towards the end of Pi and the tiger’s journey, things got a bit magical realism for my taste. The story eases into it, but I still raised my eyebrows a few times. I’m not big on magical realism, but it didn’t deter my enjoyment.

Which is a good thing because omg the ending. The ending of this book is… it left me speechless. I don’t know how to write about it because I can’t give it away but I want to gush about it so badly. You have to experience the whole journey to appreciate the ending. The payoff is just perfect.

If you haven’t checked out Life of Pi yet, definitely go pick it up from the library and give it a read. It’s well worth it.

EXPeriencing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Spoiler-Filled Review Pt. 2)

Cover image via.

This review/stream-of-consciousness digestion of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is going to be full of spoilers. You have been warned. You can read my non-spoiler review here.

There is a lot to unpack in J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne’s play. So much, in fact, that this is less a review and more of a list of reactions I had while reading. I’ll expand on some of my thoughts, but since this is full of spoilers, really I’m just here to share my thoughts. And there were a lot of them.

Seriously, if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child yet, turn back now. Spoilers are coming.

Part One, Act One

  • That the play started exactly where we left off on Platform 9 3/4 in the Epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows makes my heart so happy. An effortless marriage of old and new.
  • As we follow Albus and Rose on the Hogwarts Express, it is clear Rose takes after her mother.
  • And we meet Scorpius. And he is my favorite. He’s funny, and we later learn he’s smart and loyal. All the things Harry found in his friends on the Hogwarts Express.
  • OMG, Albus Potter is sorted into Slytherin?? Did we know this before? Did this play reveal this information? Omg. I’m uncomfortable. But then… I’m thrilled. I’m a Slytherin myself, and as Harry said, the bravest man he ever knew was a Slytherin. Let’s see where this goes.
  • Why are there rumors that Voldemort had a child? That’s weird.
  • It’s also weird to picture Harry and Hermione with jobs. I have a job. They’re supposed to epitomize my childhood. And they have jobs.
  • Wait. Is Hermione… Minister of Magic? Duh. Of course she is.
  • “Huh, another new character. I wonder who this Delphi character turns out to be?” she thought, not knowing her own foreshadowing.
  • Oh boy, time turners.
  • The confrontation between Albus and Harry before Albus leaves for his third year is… rough. I still remember hating everything and everyone as a 13 year old. But now, while I don’t have kids, I see where Harry’s frustration is coming from. I’m at a very odd spot in adulthood where I still feel so connected to my childhood, but all my friends are having babies. I feel for you, Albus. I feel for you, Harry.
  • Can we talk about the Trolley Witch?? WTF is happening?? And how the hell do they pull that off on stage?
  • Can a Potter not break into the Ministry of Magic? And can someone please put some stricter regulations on polyjuice potion ingredients? Hello.
  • Also, again, how are they accomplishing these effects on stage?

Part One, Act Two

  • Ugh, time travel. This is not going to result in anything resembling good. At all.
  • There’s no way sabotaging Cedric Diggory will go well for you, kids.
  • Oh. I don’t think I needed Dumbledore and Harry emotions today.
  • “What’s that, Albus? You’re in the wrong Hogwarts house now and you ruined at least one family? However could that have happened?” she thought sarcastically.
  • Oh good, we get Harry/Dumbledore and Harry/Malfoy drama! Just what we need. Although, that was pretty classic and entertaining.
  • We also get some classic, heart-wrenching Hogwarts student bestie fights. Ahh, wouldn’t be a Harry Potter book without them!
  • I just love the Scorpius/Albus BFFs.
  • WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN, SCORPIUS? You brought Umbridge back! Your best friend disappeared! FIX IT.

Part Two, Act One

  • Wow, Draco, the absence of Voldemort and the addition of your wife really made you a better person. In the correct timeline, anyway.
  • DID HE SAY SNAPE?
  • Honestly, I can’t process the horrors that come about from humiliating Cedric out of the Triwizard Tournament. It hurts my heart. Just fix it, Scorpius.
  • Oh thank god. Thank you, Snape. Thank you, Scorpius. Thank you.
  • How is there still an Act and a half to go??
  • Seriously, Albus/Scorpius may top Harry/Ron/Hermione. They’re my favorite.
  • Ah. Delphi. You’re back. That means you’re not good.
  • Friendship will never be a weakness, Delphi. Only evil people think that. You take after your father so well.

Part Two, Act Two

  • It’s truly incredible how far Voldemort’s tendrils spread. It will take so many generations to erase all that he did. You know, if Delphi doesn’t do it right now and elimiate everyone we know and love.
  • Albus and Scorpius are a pretty unstoppable team. I love the message in a blanket. Not only is it really damn important to inform Harry where and when they are, it repairs the most painful scene in the whole play.
  • This is going to be an uncomfortable series of scenes, isn’t it?
  • Yup. Harry was just transfigured into Voldemort. I’m uncomfortable.
  • Oh. John. Jack. J.K…. No. Don’t do this to Harry. Don’t do this to his family, his friends. Don’t do this to me. Why.
  • BRB, sobbing.
  • Harry Potter continues to break my heart. But then, thankfully, it mends it, too:

SCORPIUS: Are you heading to Quidditch? Slytherin are playing Hufflepuff—it’s a big one—

ALBUS: I thought we hated Quidditch?

SCORPIUS: People can change.

And:

HARRY: I think it’s going to be a nice day.

ALBUS (smiles): So do I.

I melt.