8.31.2006

Happy Birthday, Summer Reading Project!

...Actually, this blog's birthday was yesterday, but I forgot. (Sorry, SRP.) This blog is now one year old! I should probably do a retrospective of some kind, like a tally of all the books I've read, but I know that there were a lot of books (mostly brain-candy) that didn't get mentioned on this blog.

At any rate, I have managed to keep this blog going for one year, in spite of having two jobs and attending graduate school at three-quarter time and living with my sister's small children.

Happy Birthday, blog!

8.23.2006

The Handmaid's Handout

I've put together a handout for The Handmaid's Tale that I intend to pass out when people come to pick up their copies of the book. It's designed to get people thinking about the novel, and we may or may not discuss these things in the course of the evening. Thoughts? Comments?

8.20.2006

The Handmaid's Tale, Part III

I finally got some answers to my big question: How did all this happen? About a third of the way from the end of the book, Offred described the series of events that lead to the founding of the Republic of Gilead. After a catastrophe in Washington--which was most likely planned and executed by some future members of the Republic--the Constitution gets suspended and over the period of several months, civil rights are taken away. Women have even more rights taken away. Offred describes losing her job, then finding out that she can no longer access her own bank account. And I found myself having some of the same thoughts I have when I read books about Jewish people in Europe in the 1930s. I kept mentally yelling at the women to "Get out! Get out now while you still have the chance!"

I also figured out what was happening with the pollution situation. The Republic has turned the hot spots into gulags, where undesirables work until they die of poisoning and/or radiation sickness.

You might be a fantasy novelist if...

I may have blogged this before, but it's so funny that it deserves a second mention. Created, I think, by the same people who do the Book-A-Minute reviews, this an exam for anyone writing a fantasy novel. If you've read a lot of fantasy, you'll probably alternate between laughing and saying, "That is so true!"

8.16.2006

The Handmaid's Tale, Part II

A couple of sentences I read today from this book disturbed me--more than usual anyway. On page 164 of my trade paperback edition, Offred (the narrator) talks about being able to shop at the fishmonger's for a change. She says:
Loaves and Fishes is hardly every open. Why bother openning when there's nothing to sell? The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago; the few fish they have now are from fish farms, and taste muddy. The news says the coastal areas are being "rested." Sole, I remember, and haddock, swordfish, scallops, tun; lobsters, stuffed and baked, salmon, pink and fat, grilled in steaks. Could they be extinct, like the whales?
In this book there are frequent mentions of what had happened to the world right before the revolution, if that's what you can call it. In particular, this books is peppered with references to severe pollution. And it doesn't seem like the Republic of Gilead is really doing anything to help heal the environment apart from leaving the worst places alone. Kind of strange, given that this society has regulated just about everything else about people's lives and behaviors.

8.14.2006

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, Part I

It's been a long time since I've read The Handmaid's Tale, and I had forgotten what a fascinating and disturbing read it was. I've been reading it for only three days now, and I am already past the halfway point.

What's really striking me about this book on this read through is the idea of complicity, especially as it pertains to political systems. Systems like the one that exists in The Handmaid's Tale (Wikipedia article) couldn't exist, I don't think, if so many of the participants didn't just go along with things. They way Atwood described this system, it sounds to me like a huge reaction against the politics and culture of "the time before"--the narrator's words for the way life was before whatever catastrophe it was that spawned the Republic of Gilead.

Frankly, I find it all horrifying, the way that this society has swung so far in the opposite direction of "the time before." And probably the really scary thing is that I can see this sort of thing happening in our own American society and politcal system. Think about it, almost every time the Democrats and the Left get ahead, they are followed by a Conservative and Right period. Kennedy and Johnson, then Nixon to Bush the First, then Clinton, and now Bush the Younger. And every time, it seems like the reactionary swing goes further Right or Left.

End of rant. Sorry.

Another thing that's really striking me about this book on this read through is how Atwood has personified the struggle over a woman's right to choose and control over her on body in the Handmaids. As a reaction to years of abortions and declining birth rates, reproduction and sexuality have become frighteningly regulated. The Handmaids, as the narrator frequently describes them, are "walking wombs" and so on.

The reason I am re-reading this book is because I am planning on leading a discussion about it at the end of September for Banned Books Week at my local public library. As you can no doubt see, I am going to have a lot to talk about.

8.06.2006

Technology Used to Recover Lost Text

A cool story that ran in the online version of Wired the other day. The story describes the use of X-ray technology to recover a couple of treatises by Archimedes that had been lost since the Middle Ages.

The Messenger, part II

Pacing. When a writer does it well, you may not even notice. But when something it wrong with the pacing, you can tell. Either the story drags by or it sprints by so fast you might have to re-read passages to figure out what the hell just happened.

In the case of The Messenger, I felt a little of both. The novel started out at a good pace, with the plot just humming along. But around the middle, I felt like I was starting to get bogged down as the characters set up and executed their operation. As I got further and further into the book, I kept waiting for things to start to pick up like they usually do in thrillers. And, as usually happens with a book that takes too long to set up, the ending felt like Silva rushed it to make all the loose ends come together. Good book, but I couldn't help but wonder why Silva would take such care to set up the main plot and then have the ending feel like an "Oh-shit-I-have-to-get-this-to-my-editor-tomorrow-where-did-all-that-time-go" ending.

Overall, this was a really good book that could have been better if the pace had been more even and the ending drawn out a little more.

8.03.2006

The Messenger, by Daniel Silva, part I


The Messenger is the latest installment of Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, now six books long, about an art restorer who is also a counterterrorism agent and assassin for the State of Israel. I love this series, because its always about more than just danger and thrills like many espionage novels. Above all things, I think, these books are about the history of Jews and Israel. Books one, five and now six have been about the increasingly violent and seemingly eternal fighting between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East. Books two through four were about, as Silva describes in the author's note of A Death in Vienna, the "unfinished business of the Holocaust" (p. 397 in the hardback version).

So far, I am really enjoying The Messenger and am on tenterhooks about what's going to happen next. However, I am also hearing a lot of the recent political discussion about Iraq and Israel coming out of the various characters' mouths. This makes it hard to enjoy the book just for the sake of its plot and characters, but I also think this book does a great job of showing all this sides of these debates. No doubt some critics, professional and otherwise, will take issue with this, and say that Silva sacrificed a great book to get these agendas across.

I think he did, too, at least a little bit. But I think that these issues are so important for the world we live in now that we need to stay informed anyway we can. And fiction has always been a great vehicle for political commentary. (Jonathan Swift, anyone?)

I am also impressed at Swift's ability to write about things that are so relevant now, when surely he must have had to finish this book many, many months ago. His last book, Prince of Fire, suffered a little when the world changed just after Silva wrote it. (I have a short review I wrote last year that talks about this in more detail.) It's an unavoidable problem for books, that they often become out of date as soon as they're published.