Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

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In the age of the Gilead Regime, American society is restructured according fundamentalist, pseudo-Biblical law. Women cannot own property, cannot work outside the home, cannot choose their husbands or even choose not to marry at all. Women are vessels only, sacred and abused, venerated and reviled, valuable only if their wombs are viable and their spirits broken. This is the world in which an anonymous “handmaid” of the near future is set. Like thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of women across the country, she was seized from her former life, separated from her young daughter, conditioned through violence and indoctrination to submit, then placed in the home of an influential “Commander” and his wife for the sole purpose of producing a child. A Handmaid’s Tale is the story of her daily life, of her introspection, of the bruises inflicted on a young woman’s soul as it beats itself to death against the bars of its cage.

I have tried to read books by the Crazy Great Margaret Atwood before, giving up on all of them because of the jarring, despondent, acidic tone of her narrators. Perhaps because I listened to this book instead of reading it, and perhaps because it was read by the wonderful and versatile Claire Danes herself, I succeeded in finishing. Though I’ll give it four out of five stars, I can’t say I loved the book. I can’t argue with the quality and experience of the writing. I can’t deny the ingenuity of the world Atwood created or the piercingly effective pathos of the book. But unlike my experience with The Sparrow last week, this book left me empty instead of full. It left me a little less hopeful about people and society at large and it made me hate men, which is not the healthiest place for me to live.

I will say that there were a few shining moments of authenticity and insight that elicited my signature “humph” (not unlike the sound I imagine I’d make if I were kicked in the stomach). The narrator’s musings on nightfall, on ignorance, on fear, and on the female body… nothing short of brilliant. But, I look for hints of redemption and hope in every story, no matter how desperate or dark. And, try as I might, I just could not find those things here.

In fact, I found myself dwelling on one of the narrator’s mantras as I pushed through to the end:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

Book Review: The Sparrow

“Kinda spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.”

Russell, Mary Doria (2008-05-27). The Sparrow: A Novel (The Sparrow series) (pp. 121-122). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Father Emilio Sandoz of the Society of Jesus has never considered himself to be a mystic or a saint. His faith is not founded in a “feeling” about God, or even in any kind of love for Him. Sandoz was attracted to the centeredness, the morality of the faith as a mere boy, when he was rescued from the slums of La Perla by a Texan Jesuit priest with a penchant for swearing and an eye for diamonds in the rough.

So when first contact is made with an alien world in the neighboring galaxy of Alpha Centauri, and that first contact comes in the form of lovely, wistful, transcendent music, Father Sandoz is astounded and amused and intrigued. But when he and each of his closest friends turn out to have the precise skill sets required to make the journey out to this new world, he is shaken. And when, against all possible odds, Father Sandoz and those dearest to his heart land on that far away alien Garden of Eden just eighteen short months later, he is transported. For the first time, he feels, he has encountered and fallen in love with the Living God.

But crossing languages, cultures, and species is a treacherous business. As missionaries throughout the millennia of human history have learned, the cost of leading the vanguard of discovery can be very, very high. How will a fledgling faith hold up in the face of loss and suffering and despair? Can we love a God who takes away as much as He gives, who is neither simple, predictable, or safe?

Mary Doria Russell accomplished in her debut, award-winning novel what I thought was impossible in the modern age. She married the foremost theories of medicine and technology with one of the oldest and most rigidly structured religious faiths. She took atheist and Jesuit characters and treated each with the same honest affection, bound them together as a family unit, and then dissected them in a ruthless pursuit of literally “universal” truths. She did not shy away from a single charged, political question. She looked the reader in the face as she led us to an abyss we all recognize, but work very hard to ignore.

I have a new favorite book, folks. And I am challenged, once again, to expand my own view of what’s possible to achieve in fiction.

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

There is a silence which follows Kote the innkeeper. The root of the silence is in the stories of Kote’s youth, when he was known as Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Kingkiller, Re’ Lar Kvothe of the Arcanum. He is finally willing to tell his story, from his childhood days in a troupe of traveling troubadours, to the death of his childhood and his struggles at the University; even the tale of his one great love. He’ll tell it all, now that the renowned Chronicler is here and ready with his pen. But the silence still haunts Kvothe’s every step, death still lingers on the doorstep, and dark, treacherous hints of magic are beginning to seep into Kvothe’s little backwoods town.
Patrick Rothfuss has been hailed as a world builder to rival the grand master Tolkien himself. My first exposure to the Kingkiller Chronicles lived up to those rumors. Languages, cultures, histories, and religious traditions flow through this book like a rain-gorged river. In the dedication, Rothfuss thanks his mother for teaching him the love of story, and his father for teaching him to take the time to do things well. When it comes to the creativity and depth of this fantasy series, Rothfuss must be acknowledged as a crazy great.

That being said, this book was a struggle for me, from beginning to end. Rather than argue with the loud protests of many fellow readers whom I hold in the highest respect, I’m going to put my ardent dislike of this book down to a matter of interpretation and personal taste. Rothfuss did indeed take the time to build his story very carefully, although I could have done with a few less redundant descriptions and cliché euphemisms (a sigh should only “deflate” a character once, not three times in a single scene). But the real crux of my problem with Kvothe as a character and Rothfuss’ choice of narrative style was the myopic, pompous, exclusive tone that ran rampant throughout. (Before you turn red in the face and start stabbing your keyboard to decry this less than positive reader response, please refer back to the disclaimer at the beginning of this paragraph.)

I will give one example of my complaint before I leave this alone and move on to other reads. Ok, two examples.

Toward the end of the book (no spoilers here), Kvothe opens the case of an instrument so that it can “feel a little sun on its strings”. He goes on to tell the reader that he doesn’t expect anyone who isn’t a true musician to understand why he did this. I scoffed aloud. It would have been so simple a thing, the most minute of shifts in the semantics, for the narrator to express this same sentiment with an air of inclusiveness instead of exclusiveness. He could have said, for example, “Anyone who has had a long and intimate relationship with a musical instrument will understand.”

If this was a one-time choice of phrasing, I could be quite legitimately accused of nitpicking. But of course, it wasn’t. I got so fed up with the words “I don’t expect you to understand” by the end of this book, I considered making it a drinking game. But then, I’ve got responsibilities to tend to and taking that many shots in a given day cannot be good for one’s health.

In addition to the grating hubris of the narrator, the character Kvothe was a quintessential “Gary Stu”.

A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.

See full article here.

Kvothe is a wunderkind from the very start: supernaturally intelligent and mature for his age, blessed not only with survival skills most eleven year olds have never even heard of, but also with a knack for acting, music, languages, dialects, horse taming… Oh, and he knows EVERYTHING. Any time any question in any field of study or social etiquette or street wisdom arises, this kid knows the answer. Every. Time. The only people who don’t like him are either ignorant or straight up two dimensional bad guys. He’s the guy the ladies love and the haters love to hate.

Ok I’m done. So sorry guys. Maybe I’ve grown cynical in my middle age, but this was just not for me.

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I feel like I’ve just run a marathon.

Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of eight short stories, all written between 1990 and the present day, by a software engineer working in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington.

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The first story in this series, “Tower of Babylon”, caught me up and tumbled me head over heels like a sudden breaking wave. All the stories that followed, while they certainly could never be called disappointments, felt more like the gentle surf leftover after the initial swell, carrying me back up to shore.

That’s the best I can do, folks, to explain the impact this cornerstone of science fiction has had on my views of Story, the craft of writing, and science fiction as a genre. One story, Chiang told entirely without dialogue. His characters spoke, to themselves and to one another, but he explained those exchanges rather than writing them out. This normally unacceptable approach completely escaped my attention until I’d nearly reached the end of the story. Another short was a collection of monologues. Like reading a scattered collection of interviews without hearing the questioning voice of the interviewer. Still another story employed the passive voice so often, I actually stopped mid-story and started over from the beginning, unable to believe he was getting away with that basic of a faux-pas in the art of writing fiction.

Rule-breaking writing styles aside, Ted Chiang’s stories ring with thoughtfulness, with intention, in exactly the way I hope my own stories will. He does not shy away from the hard, offensive questions that plague our culture and he does not pretend to believe other than he does for the sake of political correctness. And since he couches it all in tales of miles-high towers and parthenogenic experimentation and the advent of the super-intelligent human and student-led movements for calliagnosia, you just sort of absorb his ideas into your subconscious before you realize what’s happened.

Genius.

Mr. Chiang, please quit your day job and write more. For all our sakes.

Audiobooks, Paperbacks, and Kindles, Oh my!

As I savor the last of the short stories in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life and Others, I’m also starting in on an Audible offering, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

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I’ve had very mixed feelings about audiobooks and my experiences seem to be largely determined by the audiobook’s reader. Neil Gaiman is an excellent narrator, as you could only assume he would be, so I’ve loved every one of his audiobooks thus far. I got frustrated with the tone and pace of the reader for Station Eleven, which made it tough to finish the book. Whereas Benedict Cumberbatch was so much fun to listen to, I didn’t really mind that I didn’t love the book.

The issue I’ve encountered in The Name of the Wind is that it’s a sweeping epic, likened by some to The Lord of the Rings, but it’s read by a kid who sounds like he may just have graduated from college. Not to be agist, but too many of these character’s voices sound like they require a seasoned voice to represent them. It’s been a major distraction.

Does anyone out there enjoy audiobooks? Do you have any favorite readers? Any least favorites?

I don’t encounter these sorts of distractions when I read books in paperback or on my Kindle, happily. Although, the voice-to-text on the Kindle can lend very interesting insights as you hear text read aloud in a monotone, digital voice. I couldn’t listen to a whole book that way, but it is certainly a worthwhile stop gap when I just can’t pick up a book to read it for whatever reason.

What about you? Do you love to listen, to feel the printed page between your fingers, or to scroll across the screen at your leisure?

How do you read best?

To Amazon or Not to Amazon, That is the Question…

Since the first time I mentioned to someone that I was actively seeking a publisher, I’ve gotten confused looks and the same question, over and over again: Why don’t you just self-publish an eBook on Amazon?

I know I’m not alone when I say that getting published the traditional way, with an editor and/or agent, with a carefully bound tome of printed pages that I can smell and feel and turn over in my hands, is quite simply my heart’s desire.

That is my goal for my novels: I want to see them on my bookshelf. I want spines with “Amy Deringer Robinson” printed on them resting between Poe and Salinger. I want books.

But my short stories… Well those I might be willing to self-publish as digital bite-sized fiction.

Thoughts?

Anyone have experience with this?

Anyone like to buy short stories on Amazon?

Still Reading, Still Writing

I don’t have a book review for you this weekend, but it’s for the best possible reason.

I just can’t bring myself to rush this book.

Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Ted Chiang’s short story collection “Story of Your Life and Others”. This man has a peculiar genius for micro fiction. But no, I’ll go no further. I have to keep reading.

I submitted to the Angry Robot open submission call today, which makes for nearly 60 submissions of my novel since I completed it last Fall. I’m still suffering a sore temptation to rewrite the whole novel from its very beginning, but for now, I am recommitting to the goal of publishing with journals and magazines as I endure the long wait for feedback on my book.

Whatever it takes to keep writing, writing, writing.

Back to it!