Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Don't get me wrong, I like me a dystopian mind blow every now and again to make me feel good about my current situation, but guh-damn. I've got to read about a lot of unicorns and rainbows to cleanse my palette after this cluster of darkness.

The Handmaid's Tale is an American version of oppressive societies like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or anywhere ISIS is in charge. With fundamentalist religious imagery, creepy sex scenes, and people displayed on hooks, I noped my way through this book as fast as I could.

A part of my discomfort lies in the setting. It wasn't in some unnamed distant future. It was now. Offred (our narrator) grew up in the 80's, like me. She lived before everything went to hell, after a totalitarian regime took over the United States. She didn't wonder what things were like before. She knew. And that makes her reality more relatable to me and harder to accept.

And her kid? Don't get me started. All I have to say is Margaret Atwood owes me an apology for bringing children into her nightmare society the way she did. It's like watching effing Walking Dead after stupid Judith was born and all I could think about was how the baby wasn't going to get eaten by zombies every freaking minute of the show. Not that Offred's daughter is a big part of the book, and her life isn't in danger, but STILL.

And if you're wondering what happens, well, nothing in particular. We just hear about Offred's life - with snippets of her before. We learn basically what daily life is like for someone in her position, basically living as a concubine in a patriarchal society that suppresses women's rights (among others). No bigge.

Is it interesting? I guess. But so is a car accident, or a jerusalem cricket. Doesn't mean I need to linger any longer than necessary in their presence. And with that, I am over this book. It's thought-provoking, but too severe for my taste. Any society where people greet each other with "blessed be the fruit" or "under his eye," is one I'll only see in my rear view mirror. Real or fictional.

Just got word that the Hulu series is even worse than the book. Will I watch it? Of course! I can't NOT!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is a work of historical fiction written in 1976 by Alex Haley. He begins with the life and eventual capture of his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte in Africa. In what follows is a mostly fictional story, except for possibly a few details and Kinte's lineage.

Fiction or not, Roots is an amazing saga of nine generations. The most intriguing part of the book, for me, was the beginning, which focused on Kinte's life. After Kinte was transported to America to be sold as a slave, I understood how he yearned for his village, the sounds of the monkeys in the trees, his simple hut, hunting for food, and being so self-sufficient. When I first started reading about life in his village I thought how horrible it must be to live in such primitive conditions. But by the time Kunta was kidnapped, I saw how beautiful and amazing his life had truly been.

It was also interesting to see how, when Kunta lived as a slave on two American plantations, he despised the American slaves. Their culture was so completely different from his, and they seemed more complacent to him, as he couldn't understand why they didn't all try to escape. In the first of many personal compromises he would make, he married a Christian American slave and struggled with instilling his heritage in his daughter, Kizzy. The fact that slaves were not allowed to read or write (and Kunta could do both, in Arabic), made it even more difficult. In addition, after Kizzy was sold to another plantation, her ties to her father and mother were completely severed. What would Kunta have thought, to know that his grandchildren would grow up to be culturally similar to those American slaves he despised? His dreams of a family, living as Muslims, repeating the traditions he grew into, would never be achieved.

In full disclosure, there is some controversy surrounding the book that might make it unpalatable to some. A few years after its release, Haley was sued by author Harold Courlander and Haley settled, acknowledging that some passages were taken from Courlander's book, The African.

There were also questions raised about how true certain parts of the book actually were, in terms of Haley's purported research into his family's ancestry. 

Controversy aside, this was quite the read, and so worth it. It's heartbreaking, eye-opening, and likely a  different perspective on American history than many of us were offered in school. Highly recommend. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

"Mom, after someone dies and becomes a ghost, do they become a kid again?"

My four-year-old asked me this just a day after I finished reading Atkinson's book, Life After Life.

"Well, some people believe that. It's called reincarnation." I told him, wondering if his earlier comment about how I should wear a certain necklace "the next time I got married" was related to this conversation.

While I'm not sure Life After Life is about reincarnation, parallel universes, or a hybrid of both, it nonetheless has an intriguing premise: a woman lives her life again and again, with small tweaks here and there that enable her to live longer in one life (or shorter), or follow a completely different path in another.

Ursula Todd is born (and reborn) in a snowstorm in Britain, 1910. She is primed to live through the first and second World Wars, which makes for an interesting perspective in its own right. Through Ursula, Atkinson explores themes of family, fate, intuition, free choice, and, obviously, mortality. One thing I like about this book is that there are many tongue in cheek moments, even in the darkest places Atkinson ventures. But I wouldn't describe this book as funny. It can be a bit heavy at times, yet Atkinson does a great job of giving levity here and there to remind us that even in the darkest times, there's always hope, if not in this world, then well, you know.

We learn what life in the English countryside is like, as well as life in London during the World War II Blitz, and we even learn a little about life in Germany in the 1930's. As with Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Atkinson explores that nagging feeling you sometimes get about something, but can't quite explain. She also explores what life might be like if that niggling feeling moves toward awareness.

And it's this final point, that got me thinking about what my son said next, after asking if after people die and become ghosts, they become kids again.

"After I became a kid again, my house looked different" he told me as matter of factly as if he'd just said there were clouds in the sky.

While I haven't gone all in on the prospect of reincarnation, the goosebumps on my arms reminded me that some things, like Atkinson's book, or a conversation with a four-year-old, just might make you wonder.