Tag Archives: margaret atwood

Booker Prize Winner(s) 2019

I’m going to save my thoughts on the 2019 Booker longlist as a whole until closer to the end of the year, because I know there are at least two more titles I’ll be reading for sure in the coming days/weeks, and some maybes as well. But in light of today’s utterly surprising winner announcement, I wanted to share some initial thoughts!

41081373. sy475 First off, in case you haven’t heard the news, congrats to 2019’s TWO Booker Prize winners: Bernardine Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood with The Testaments!

I didn’t post a winner prediction, as I’ve only read two and a half of the shortlisted titles so far and didn’t feel I could pass any sort of fair judgment on titles I haven’t read yet. (All reading and judging is of course subjective anyway, which is important to keep in mind especially around the time of book prize announcements) But, from what I’d read, and what I’d heard from other readers, I was HOPING for Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport to win, and EXPECTING that Girl, Woman, Other might actually take the title. So, I’m thrilled that Evaristo did indeed take the win! She’s the first black woman in the history of the Booker Prize ever to win, which is a fantastic development for 2019 and absolutely worth celebrating. Additionally, the content of her book sounds fantastic, but I’ll save descriptions for the end.

Now, let’s talk about Atwood’s joint win.

42975172For anyone who saw my review of The Testaments, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m rather disappointed about this title taking half of the prize winnings. Though Atwood is one of my favorite writers and I don’t in any way begrudge The Testaments its wide popularity, I just don’t think this book is prize winning material. I don’t want to spend this post bashing a winner, so please follow the link at the end of this post to my review for more specific thoughts if you’re curious.

Historically, this is the third time the prize has been divided between two winners, and Atwood is the fourth author to receive the prize twice. I don’t mind an author receiving a literary prize twice. It goes a little ways toward proving that the judges really do consider each book individually rather than taking logistics/statistics too heavily into account. But I don’t like the idea of this prize being divided at all. Joint winners feels like a cop-out. This seems like one of those “you had one job!” situations where the judges just… didn’t do their job. And of course, my frustration at the situation isn’t helping my opinion of the book I didn’t want to win in the first place. If any author deserved to win twice, I would be the first to say it’s Atwood. And yet, The Testaments is my least favorite Atwood novel (so far), and frankly, it’s just not as good from a literary standpoint as The Handmaid’s Tale. No, literariness isn’t everything, but for a LITERARY PRIZE, I do expect that to carry some weight. For The Testaments to win where The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t does not sit well with me, and it leaves me wondering whether this prize in 2019 is in some way meant to reflect the judges’ appreciation for BOTH of the books in this duology- an “I’m sorry the better book didn’t win, let us make it up to you by giving this less accomplished sequel an accolade instead.” Just a theory.

If I sound harsh, it’s mainly due to my frustration at the lack of a definitive winner, and furthermore that the first black woman to win the Booker has to share the prize. These are my biggest hangups. The fact that I didn’t think The Testaments merited a win at all is a lesser concern- I know that opinions vary, mine isn’t any more valid than anyone else’s, and again, reading is subjective, so.

45735014Moving on to the greatest slight, let’s talk aout Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. Though there are plenty of readers who simply aren’t on board with this 1,020 page stream-of-consciousness story that’s told mainly in one looong sentence, the crowd that gets it really gets it, and this is the title I saw the most votes for among my own social media feeds. Personal opinions on the content aside (I’m currently reading this one and don’t have any final thoughts to share yet), it’s undeniably impressive in structure and style, and certainly the most unique book on the list. (Yes, I feel confident in making that assertion after reading only half the book and not having read three of the other shortlisted titles.) I thought this one had a great shot at winning, and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this one again when the 2020 Women’s Prize nominees are announced. I’ll have a full review coming soon, but I want to voice another theory in the meantime:

I wonder if Ducks simply seemed a bit too similar to 2018’s Booker winner, Milkman, to succeed here this year. Both are structurally inventive and challenging reads, in stream-of-consciousness style, with political commentary, from a female perspective, written by a white woman. They’re totally different, of course, but similarities can certainly be drawn. I actually think Ducks is going to fare best with the Milkman-loving crowd. I suspect this might have played a role in its missing a 2019 win.

Additionally, I think the joint win seems especially harsh for all four of the shortlisted writers who didn’t win this year. To have your shot at winning increase from 1/6 to 1/3, and STILL not be chosen, would be tough. To know that the judges had such a hard time making a choice that they DIDN’T in the end make the choice, and yet were confident enough to exclude those other four writers, must have been unimaginably difficult. Of course, Everyone on the shortlist (and even the longlist) is likely just happy to have been nominated at all and knows not to expect a win, but to be passed up in such a wishy-washy situation just sounds unusually painful.

And so, I highly recommend picking up more than just the winning books, if you have the chance! I’ll share full recommendations from the longlist in another month or two, but for now, a quick recap of my progress and general overview:

I’VE READ:

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 35003282This is an Odyssey retelling about a Nigerian man, a poultry farmer, who just wants his lover’s family to accept him. While trying to prove himself, he is taken advantage of in tragic ways. Moral and social themes are explored.
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The sequel to Atwood’s wildly popular Handmaid’s Tale, this one’s a dystopian thriller set in Gilead. Three new perspectives each have their own feminist insight to impart, and the book offers a hopeful and powerful response to unjust government.

CURRENTLY READING:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Here we have a deep dive into the perspective of an Ohio housewife: the everywoman in Trump’s America. As the unnamed narrator bakes pies and takes care of four children, she’s also extremely preoccupied by the current state of the world.

WILL READ:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This is a novel comprised of twelve connected short stories that examine the lives of black women in Brexit Britain.

MIGHT READ:

  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. 44599127This is a Don Quixote retelling with fantasy elements set in modern America. This is a love story and a wild romp of political commentary.
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. Here we take a trip through a dying woman’s brain in the moments immediately following her death, followed by the trials of the friends who fight to give her a decent burial afterward.

46777584I’ve linked the two titles I’ve read to my reviews, and the rest to Goodreads. I’ll post a personal ranking of the longlisted titles and more conclusive thoughts on the shortlist once I’ve finished reading the titles I’m interested in checking out. I’ll continue to post reviews as I read, as well. And if any of these titles catch your interest, please give them a further look! Though the Booker Prize aims to single out the best novel(s) published each year, don’t forget that there are plenty of other great new books that are also worth reading as well! Though I’m very much looking forward to Girl, Woman, Other myself, literary prizes are above all a call to celebrate READING, and that’s one cause I’m sure we can all unite over!

But if you have specific thoughts about this year’s Booker Prize, whether you agree or disagree with my stance, I’d love to chat in the comments. šŸ™‚

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.Ā  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel toĀ The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale Graphic Novel and Mary’s Monster

I read two graphic novels of sorts (one is very hard to categorize) last week, so here’s a two-for-the-price-of-one set of reviews!

 

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovelThe Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, art and adaptation by Renee Nault – 4 stars

I picked up this adaptation of Atwood’s beloved modern classic as a quick refresher before diving into The Testaments (which I’ll hopefully be wrapping up and reviewing in a couple of days).

Initially, I realized that what I remembered most from the novel was the world of Gilead and all of its terrible rules of operation; I wasn’t quite as clear on the specific characters or events. The more I read, the more this pattern made sense, as the plot of this novel actually matters very little- it’s a vehicle Atwood (and here Nault) uses to explore the extremes of this political scenario. Our main character, Offred, isn’t special, she’s just the face chosen to show the reader the “norm” for the women of this society. Every other person that she interacts with- be they Handmaids, Marthas, Wives, Commanders, Guardians, Angels, Aunts, etc. are also singular faces representing a greater majority. They’re Gilead stereotypes. The power of the novel comes from the fact that for the reader, the revelation of every unjust detail of theĀ  Handmaid’s existence is an event in itself. This is precisely why I wasn’t ready for a full reread of the actual novel yet- without its power to surprise with rampant sexism and very thorough slavery of women, The Handmaid’s Tale loses a substantial amount of its power.

With the graphic novel, excellent visual art made for a somewhat new experience with the familiar story. The colors used are bold and striking, with a tendency toward bright red, the style stark but not sparse. I thought Nault did a wonderful job of keeping each face unique and recognizable amidst a sea of matching uniforms. The art is understated but elegant.

The language also feels very true to Atwood’s original work; it’s been a little while since I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale so I can’t swear to Nault’s words being lifted directly from Atwood’s pages, but they gave me that impression. It’s a very faithful adaptation in content and spirit.

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

Well, faithful until the end. Throughout most of this read, it was a perfect 5 star experience; I couldn’t remember why I had only rated The Handmaid’s Tale at 4 stars and was fully prepared to love this graphic rendering even more than the original. But the last three pages take this narrative a step farther than the novel’s perfect, ambiguous ending, lending a hint of softness to what is otherwise a very bleak speculation of how far unchecked misogyny could go in the US. While I appreciate the framing concept behind those last three pages, and even marked a great quote from within them, they suggest a light at the end of the tunnel. This cautionary tale of what could (and does, in some places) happen to women in a world without feminism is buffered here by the closing indicator that no matter how bad things get, justice will win in the end. It seems to go against the entire purpose of the story, in my opinion. (Which is also part of the reason I’m struggling with The Testaments, but I’ll get more into that later.)

So, all in all, a fantastic rendering of a tale for the ages that I’d love to own a copy of someday, though I’d like to pretend the final scene it depicts doesn’t exist.

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it, but, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

 

marysmonsterMary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created FRANKENSTEIN by Lita Judge – 5 stars

I picked up this barely-categorizable work of art at Callum’s excellent recommendation, after adoring another ode to Shelley’s classic, Winterson’s Frankissstein. My love for Frankenstein grows exponentially the more I learn about Shelley’s real life, which of course is so intricately entwined with the themes of her novel.

“I am not just an unwed girl. / I can choose to forgive. / I can choose to live again, / broken but breathing, / half lover, half pain.”

Though I refer to this one as a graphic novel for ease of drawing on a familiar image, Mary’s MonsterĀ is actually a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley’s real life, told through non-rhyming poetry, and accompanied by gorgeous, haunting, black and white drawings. The color scheme reminds us that despite the first-person present-tense narration this story is grounded in the early 19th century. The art is pretty, with soft edges, but it conveys such a depth of pain and sorrow.

The book opens on Mary’s young childhood, and the tone and language put me in mind of YA lit (this impression was probably reinforced by the fact that it was shelved in the YA section at my library); I think this would be appropriate for a teen audience (perhaps English classes that require students to read Frankenstein might benefit from using this as an accompanying text), as long as readers are prepared for how dark a tale this is. As Mary grows up, her life becomes more tragic and complex, and all of her tragedies are caught up in her writing. Though I think I would have loved both Frankenstein and Mary’s Monster as a teen, I do however believe there’s a richer experience that comes from reading both as an adult.

So what is this story? It’s an account of Mary Shelley’s relationship with her eventual husband Percy (Bysshe Shelley) and with her own family, her struggle as a young mother and social outcast, the deaths she sees, and her resilience in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Plus a lot of Frankenstein symbolism. Author Lita Judge has this to say of the of the book:

“The popular myth is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was conceived spontaneously on a stormy night in answer to a dare to write a ghost story. That evening did occur, but countless events in Mary’s life before and after that evening played a much greater role in the horror novel’s creation. My story is an attempt to trace the many origins of her genius. It’s a testament to a resilient girl whose imagination, forged by isolation, persecution, and loss, created a new form of storytelling as a means of connecting with the very society that had socially exiled her.”Ā 

I was slow to warm up to this one, but completely won over in the end. I am now in desperate need of a Frankenstein reread.

 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I suddenly remembered and promptly gave up on my goal to read more graphic novels this year that I picked both of these books up on impulse. I really should make a more serious attempt to follow through in 2020, because clearly the genre has a lot to offer. If you’re at all interested in The Handmaid’s Tale or Frankenstein, I can’t recommend these beautiful books highly enough.

Do you have any more graphic novel recommendations for me?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Blind Assassin

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading one of Margaret Atwood’s books every year. This is my fourth year, and fourth Atwood novel. This winter I chose The Blind Assassin, a 500+ page story with dual plot lines. It’s also one of my backlogged BOTM books from 2017, so I’m also making progress on my personalized 2018 reading challenge.

theblindassassinAbout the book: One could say Iris and her sister, Laura, were doomed from birth. Their once-affluent family falls on hard times in the first world war, and the descent of their heritage in the aftermath of that war and the lead-up to the second war leaves them tied to unpleasant fates. Now Iris is an eighty year-old woman of limited means and ill-repute, and spends her days writing a secret account of the downward spiral of her life. She has seen the deaths of most of her family and friends by this time, and narrates with an interesting blend of cynicism and hope. Between chapters of Iris’s present and past are excerpts from the book published posthumously in Laura’s name: a tale called The Blind Assassin that a pair of lovers spins for each other across months of clandestine meetings. In the end, Iris’s story will explain Laura’s.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”

The layout of this book took me some effort to wrap my head around, though it makes perfect sense eventually. The narration goes back and forth between sections of Iris’s previously untold story and the one Laura published. To complicate matters, Iris’s sections slip between her present life at eighty years of age, and her personal history; though it’s fairly easy to tell which parts are which, these switches are not labelled and happen simply between one paragraph and the next. This goes on for several chapters and then Laura’s book takes several chapters. Laura’s sections are further complicated by the clear indication that there is some hidden connection to Iris’s story, and by the fact that they are interspersed with newspaper clippings from a wide range of dates. The news articles match parts of Iris’s story, though not in chronological order. That was the hardest part for me: until everything came together in Iris’s story, I had to keep checking the dates of the news articles to keep everything straight and make my educated guesses about what was going on behind Laura’s story.

“She stubs out her cigarette in the brown glass ashtray, then settles herself against him, ear to his chest. She likes to hear his voice this way, as if it begins not in his throat but in his body, like a hum or a growl, or like a voice speaking from deep underground. Like the blood moving through her own heart: a word, a word, a word.”

The Blind Assassin is a book for the reader who sees between the lines.Ā It’s full of subtleties and quiet hints. The big answers are revealed more plainly at the end of the book, but if you don’t solve the mysteries before the answers are announced, it might take a second read to fully appreciate the details and ties woven into the novel before the reveal. Atwood does a superb job of layering the story so that the meaning changes when you have all the clues put together.

Bless you. Be careful. Anyone intending to meddle with words needs such blessing, such warning.”

The chapters about the lovers were my outright favorite; I loved hearing the woes of the people from planet Zycron in their stolen moments together. The taste of a fantasy story within the “real” story fit aptly in the midst of a lovers’ tryst and kept the pace of the novel moving when Iris’s chapters were (necessarily) bogged down with backstory. But even the backstory was more entertaining for me than some of the minutiae of Iris’s eighty year-old life. I adored her thoughts and commentary from that perspective, but I found that I cared little about the house she lived in and the changing of the seasons and current state of the town. Other than some of those scene-setting details, I did enjoy Iris’s older voice; it was amusing to see her simultaneously accepting and rejecting the help she needed from her younger friends, for instance.

“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is, clamouring about its own needs, foisting upon us its own sordid and perilous desires, the body’s final trick is simply to absent itself. Just when you need it, just when you could use an arm or a leg, suddenly the body has other things to do. It falters, it buckles under you; it melts away as if made of snow, leaving nothing much. Two lumps of coal, an old hat, a grin made of pebbles. The bones dry sticks, easily broken.”

At heart, this book is a tragedy. A beautiful tragedy with a little room for hope, but not much. The good days are already behind the main characters, if indeed they would have called any of their days “good.” But so much of the story is lovely, as well. Atwood makes beautiful use of metaphor, imagery, and sensory details. Her writing is fierce and constantly surprising. It’s a sweet center to a sour candy. Also, as the lovers note, there would be no happiness without pain, and given the choice, who wouldn’t take pain for a chance at happiness?

“In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This isn’t my favorite Atwood book, but it’s a strong contender (as each one that isn’t my favorite tends to be. I have yet to read a book by Margaret Atwood that I find disagreeable). In the few days since I finished reading it this book has been stuck in my head in the best possible way. It’s woven together so well, and so patiently; that impresses me more long-term than a fast pace and a flashy plot. I’ll definitely be picking up another Atwood novel next year, and I’m already on the hunt for my next top choice. Any suggestions?

Further recommendations:

  • In many ways, The Blind Assassin feels like a Canadian version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Though the stories are certainly not duplicates, readers who appreciate the tragedy and love and fiction of one of these novels will likely enjoy the other. In Atonement, a young English girl accuses a man of something she misunderstands, and the consequences reach deep into several connected lives.
  • Of course I must also mention another great Atwood book; this time I’ll go with The Heart Goes Last, a(n occasionally X-rated) dystopian novel about a group of people who volunteer to spend half of each year in prison after the economy fails and ravages the nation. It’s a book about love and control and danger in apparent utopias.

Have you read any of Margaret Atwood’s books? (Including The Handmaid’s Tale…) What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a must-read for Shakespeare fans, readers who enjoy retellings, and, frankly, for fiction lovers in general. Atwood writes beautifully, and I’ve realized this is the second year in a row I’ve read one of her books in January–I sense a tradition in the making.

hag-seedAbout the book: Felix Phillips, a master of the arts, has been banished from his theater domain in Makeshiweg. His trusted co-worker has risen from beneath in order to gain a political advantage, and in lying about Felix’s desire for retirement, has also closed off any further career opportunities for the grieving man. Felix moves into a ramshackle house away from civilization, where he can pretend his dead daughter is lively and present once more. He accepts a teaching position at nearby Fletcher Prison and uses the literacy program there to teach convicts how to properly read and perform Shakespeare plays, all the while dreaming and planning his revenge on the man who disrupted his prestigious career.An opportunity presents itself for Felix to make his vengeful move from inside the prison, and Felix finally decides to direct the play that had been interrupted by his ousting–The Tempest.

“…didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?”

Like Shakespeare’s original play, Atwood’s Hag-Seed features a sort of play within a play, a multi-layered scheme for revenge with myriad parallels between the play itself, the convicts’ interpretation of the play, and the actual events of the novel that unfold with many similarities to the play’s plot. None of it, however, would work without the character who ties all of the threads together–the talented and devious Felix Phillips.

“Foolish lads, thinks Felix: never trust a professional ham.”

The characterization in this book is great. Some of the names are obviously similar to their Tempest counterparts, but others reveal comparable personalities through their mannerisms and attitudes, allowing the reader some easy connections, and some food for further thought even after the final page has been turned. Even before Felix shows his hand, however, he’s a uniquely addictive character. I couldn’t put this book down, and it wasn’t because of the scintillating plot. From the very beginning, Felix captures the reader’s attention with despair, cunning, sheer force, and sometimes even humor:

“His last stop is at a women’s swimwear boutique. ‘I’d like a bathing cap,’ he says to the elegant middle-aged woman who’s presiding. ‘Blue, if you have one.’ ‘For your wife?’ says the woman, smiling. ‘Going on a cruise?’ Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it.”

In addition to the great plot and the Tempest comparison intrigue, Atwood’s writing style is simply irresistible. She digs to the core of every emotion, bringing her world to life with well-crafted opinions unique to distinct personas, and juggles every detail with the practiced maneuvers of a true jester. There are very few women in this book, but the women that are present are arguably the most important characters (alongside Felix), and they are certainly represented well. The rather helpless Miranda of Shakespeare’s Tempest is a whirlwind force shared by two characters in Hag-Seed who make her one of the strongest persons of Atwood’s cast. The original Miranda is a target that needs protecting, but this new Miranda is all but invincible–seeing as one of the characters who represents her is already dead, and the other is a powerful actress who could probably kill any man who offends her with her ninja dance moves. Despite the male-heavy plot of the Tempest, the female voice is certainly not overlooked in Hag-Seed.

“There are so many rejections, so many disappointments, so many failures. You need a heart of iron, a skin of steel, the willpower of a tiger, and more of these as a woman.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. You don’t need to read The Tempest before this book; there is quite a bit of description about the nature of the characters and the important plot points woven into the book, and there are also a few pages at the end of the book that condense the story of the play into a bite-sized piece to make sense of anything you missed–or you can read it before diving into the rest of the story, now that you know it’s there. I think the story is immersive in its own right, but truly, in the end I think it’s much more rewarding to read following the original play. It’s fun to be able to compare your interpretations of the play and its pawns to the way it is presented in this book, which would be difficult to do if you’re only discovering the play for the first time within this transformed, modern version of it. Atwood notes differences in how the play has been performed, takes introspective looks at each of the main characters, and even discusses some of Shakespeare’s tactics at a logistic level, which are details that made me feel as though I were discussing my own thoughts on the play with someone else. I enjoyed that experience, and I don’t think I would’ve picked up on as many of the interesting opinions if I hadn’t already been familiar with the original Tempest.

Further recommendations:

  1. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, obviously, would make a good choice for Hag-Seed fans, or even potential Hag-Seed readers. Reading it before the play would be the best choice, perhaps, but I’m thinking I might read it again now that I’ve finished it. It’s a great story for anyone who’s interested in plays–especially magical ones.
  2. The Heart Goes Last is another favorite Margaret Atwood read of mine that takes place partially in a prison. This one’s a dystopian in which a whole community is formed by a group of people who are willing to jumpstart their economy on a small, private level by spending 6 months of every year in prison voluntarily. Of course, when this system is threatened with corruption, all hell breaks loose.
  3. Hag-Seed is a novel about revenge. If that’s your thing, you should also read Michael Punke’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen the movie and think the book isn’t worth your time, think again. The movie and the book are different stories, and no one has ever been so intent on revenge as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, novel version.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading the final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King. I’m sad to be saying goodbye to this YA supernatural series, but it’s been a scintillating journey and I love where this one ended. Stay tuned to find out whether this last book about Blue and her raven boys is as irresistible as the first three!

Which great books are you reading this January?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Welcome, book lovers and aspiring readers! If you’re looking for novels, you’ve come to the right place. Today I want to tell you about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This book had been on my list of books to read for a few years, and I actually read another Margaret Atwood book I’d never heard of before I finally got around to picking this one up, but once I did I readĀ The Handmaid’s Tale from cover to cover in two days. Not a record for me, but it stood out from the leisurely pace I’ve been taking through books lately. What was so great about it? Well…

About this book: Offred, the “Handmaid” of Fred, is the narrator of this futuristic dystopia. Under the reorganized government, Offred’s family was torn apart as they attempted to escape the country–her husband has all but vanished, assumed by Offred to be dead or placed in a new family, while their young daughter was sent to another government-sanctioned family and encouraged to forget her birth parents. Offred herself spent a few months under training of the nun-like Aunts to learn the new rules of propriety and find her place in society as a Handmaid. The Handmaids are a class of fertile women who are paired with childless families and employed for several months with the task of producing offspring for the prominent government husbands to raise with their infertile wives as the Handmaid is swept away to a new household. Failure to support the new government in every possible way results in either death or banishment to the Colonies, where citizens die slowly and with disgrace, removed from society and subject to hard work and poor accommodations. Offred is not allowed to grieve for her past. She is not allowed to use her old name. She is barely allowed to interact with other people, let along make friends or fall in love. But Atwood’s characters never fail to do the unthinkable, the unallowable, and Offred is no exception. She learns inside information from a strange, secret arrangement with Fred, stumbles across an underground network of Handmaid friendships and anti-government efforts, and finds companionship in unlikely places. Anything could go wrong, and if it did, Offred would never be heard from again.

The writing itself: Margaret Atwood is a master of the English language. Although this novel takes place in a future that has little in common with our present systems, Offred’s memories and astute observations give the prose a witty, sarcastic, and occasionally morbid tone, and the commentary on everyday objects and actions is easily relatable and intriguing. With very little knowledge of the contents of The Handmaid’s Tale, I picked up this book primarily because I was interesting in Atwood’s writing style in another book, and I was pleased to find the same quippy remarks from new and distinct characters.I would’ve enjoyed this book even if the plot hadn’t been so fascinating. It certainly had the feel of a modern classic; I have no doubt that The Handmaid’s Tale will persevere through the test of time.

On ambiguity: without giving away any spoilers, I’d like to mention that the ending of this book is possibly the most ambiguous finale I’ve ever read. I’ve grown to love stories with a bit of wiggle room at the end, but I usually don’t have much difficulty in stacking up the evidence and choosing a side.In this book, however, I had absolutely no idea who could be trusted, an it took me days to decide whether I believed Offred was being saved or whisked away to a torturous death.

“The Commander puts his hand to his head. What have I been saying, and to whom, and which one of his enemies has found out? Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking. There have already been purges among them, there will be more…The van waits in the driveway, its double doors stand open. The two of them, one on either side now, take me by the elbows to help me in…I have given myself over to the hand of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

I would never give away the last sentence, but this passage is near the end of the book, and hopefully encourages you to pick up this book to judge for yourself whether Offred’s fate will be favorable…or not. I give 5 of 5 stars for this one, due to the combination of fantastic writing and incredible plot.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you already know you like Margaret Atwood, or are interested in seeing her writing style but don’t like the sound of The Handmaid’s Tale‘s plot, check out Atwood’s new novel, The Heart Goes Last. This one is also futuristic, but the world is entirely different and focuses on members of a society that voluntarily spend half of each year in prison.
  2. If you like reading about crazy dystopian governments and the citizens’ attempts to retain their old identities and freedoms, try George Orwell’s classic, 1984. I was strongly reminded of 1984 while reading The Handmaid’s Tale, although thankfully there were no vicious rats in the Atwood book. If you’ve already read either of these, you’ll probably enjoy the other.

If you have any recommendations for me, I love receiving them! I also appreciate hearing your thoughts on the books I’ve reviewed, whether you’ve already read them, or I’ve helped you decide on a book to add to or cross off you must-read list. Let me know how I’m doing, and in the meantime, I’ll keep the reviews and recommendations coming.

What’s next: I recently discovered the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and I’m so excited to share with you this intense sci-fi/historical fiction/thriller masterpiece that keeps trying to take over my life. Stay tuned to find out why I’m so conflicted on whether or not to count this series as one of my all-time favorites!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant