The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

Mini-Reviews: 24/6 and In the Woods

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain

Are you addicted to your phone? Do you feel like your kids spend too much time on the computer or game console? Has your concentration, creativity, or sleep suffered compared to the days when you didn’t have a little computer in your pocket all the time? Do you stay awake past your bedtime watching endless episodes of your favorite show on Netflix? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book might be for you.

“Internet pioneer” (it says so on the jacket) Tiffany Shlain has made a very persuasive case for turning off screens for 24 hours during the week. Her family (husband and two kids) are Jewish and they practice a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” screen-free from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They begin the evening inviting people over for dinner, playing actual record albums on a record player, lingering over food and conversation to kick off every weekend. It sounds idyllic. Saturday begins with sleeping in, reading, writing in journals, even normal weekend activities like soccer games. She makes a plan beforehand, with phone numbers or directions written down on paper. (She does advocate the use of a landline telephone for emergencies.) After all, before cell phones we just consulted maps and planned meetings or outings beforehand, didn’t we?

In addition to telling her story, why she came to try this tradition, she goes into the science of unplugging from screens – what it does for your brain, sleep, stress levels, etc.

Though researchers don’t always agree on why sleep is so important, everyone concurs that it is. Sleep does so much for our bodies and brains. It’s when the pit crew comes in and gets everything ready for the next day.

One of the things that happens is a literal brainwash. While we’re asleep, our brains actually shrink in a process called “synaptic homeostasis.” This process makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking. It also allows synapses, which grow and widen while the brain is awake and busy but cannot grow indefinitely, to return to their normal size.

At the end of the book she provides a guide to trying your own Tech Shabbat, with suggestions for activities broken down by age group and even a recipe for challah bread that her family often makes during their time. You can do yours any day that works for your family. She also included friends sharing their experiences trying the Tech Shabbat, what surprised them or challenged them. It’s a very practical book, and it’s quite short, so you could read it in an afternoon.

My family hasn’t gone so far as to commit to a full 24 hours of no screens, but for the past two weeks we’ve had “Tech-Free Time” on Sundays. For five hours we don’t use any screens at all. It might not sound like much, but it’s been a game-changer for me. We play outside, play board games or do puzzles, read, work on projects around the house, and just actually talk with one another without distractions. I feel so much more present, and time actually feels like it’s slowing down. I do leave my phone on in case of emergencies, as we don’t have a landline. But I don’t respond to texts and keep it away where I can’t see it. I keep a notepad for writing down things I need to look up or do online later. I am thinking we should try expanding our time. As Shlain writes, “You are the parent. You can make anything happen. ” I highly recommend this book if you feel like you or your family old benefit from screen-free time.                        ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the Woods by Tana French

I’ve been meaning to read Tana French for years. I finally did and I’m so glad! I was worried that the plot of this would be too disturbing, with kids going missing and/or murdered, but I found that I could handle it. (Is the steady diet of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals finally toughening up my soul?) What I encountered here was lush, thoughtful, atmospheric writing, and a page turning plot as well. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, that sort of autumnal, almost elegiac feeling. The main character, Dublin Detective Rob Ryan, is the survivor of a horrific childhood incident, most of which he doesn’t remember. When a child turns up dead in the woods where Ryan was found twenty years previously, now the site of an archaeological dig and impending highway, he’s desperate not only to find the killer but to see if there’s a connection to his childhood trauma.

I loved the writing, found the characters credible and occasionally irritating in the way real humans can be, and was fascinated by the dual mysteries at the book’s center. I will definitely read more by Tana French.     ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Quicksand by Nella Larsen (CC Spin #21)

Frankly the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her? Absurd. But she began to have a feeling of discouragement and hopelessness? Why couldn’t she be happy, content, somewhere? Other people managed, somehow, to be. To put it plainly, didn’t she know how? Was she incapable of it?

Back in January of 2018 I read and reviewed Nella Larsen’s 1929 classic novel, Passing, and noted that I’d hardly ever come across a novel as slim yet as jam-packed with ideas ripe for discussion. I could definitely say the say thing about Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand (1928.) Both are arresting, probing explorations of race in early twentieth century America, both very readable. And while Passing is perhaps the tighter story, I found Quicksand to be the one that presented me with even bigger ideas to contemplate.

When we meet Helga Crane she is a young biracial woman (her father was black, her mother a white Danish immigrant.) Her mother died when she was very young and she never lived with her father; Helga feels adrift and as if she has no “people.” She is teaching at a Southern school for African Americans and engaged to a male teacher at the school. But she is not happy and doesn’t agree with the school’s educational philosophy. She makes a snap decision to leave the school and go to Chicago, where her mother’s brother lives, to see if he can help her begin anew. So begins her search for belonging and happiness, which takes her from Chicago to Harlem, to Denmark, and back again to the American South.

But just what did she want? Barring a desire for material security, gracious ways of living, a profusion of lovely clothes, and a goodly share of envious admiration, Helga Crane did know, couldn’t tell. But there was, she knew, something else. Happiness, she supposed. Whatever that might be.

Helga never does seem to find a place where she is viewed as a human being, treated superficially as an exotic, sexualized beauty in Denmark and feeling trapped in Harlem by strict rules of social etiquette and her companion’s obsession with ” the race problem.” I felt sympathy for her but also at times felt irritated by how rashly she made major life decisions. She was a compelling character and I eagerly turned the pages to see if Helga would ever find a safe place to land. Her life takes a surprising turn towards the end of the book, but I won’t spoil anything because this short classic is worthy of a place on your TBR.

This knowledge, this certainty of the division of her life into two parts in two lands, into physical freedom in Europe and spiritual freedom in America, was unfortunate, inconvenient, expensive.

Larsen is a thoughtful writer and her biography is ripe for a good biopic. Quicksand seems heavily autobiographical and I wondered how much more she could have written if she grew up in a later time, a time where biracial people’s lives weren’t so restricted by laws and societal conventions. She spent most of her life as a nurse, a career at which she, by all accounts, excelled and enjoyed. There are three short stories I haven’t yet read but that is all that’s left of her work for me to read. It’s a shame there isn’t more to explore, but I’m grateful to have found the novels she left behind.

This is the 16th book out of 51 on my Classics Club list, which you can see in this post.

Five Sentence Reviews : Two Classics and a New Best Seller

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G.Wells

This is short – my edition was 131 pages including an Introduction and a Forward by Margaret Atwood. It was descriptive, atmospheric, and unsettling, and the beginning is mysterious enough to hook the reader. I can see it’s rightful place as a science fiction classic and also how it’s exploration of science and ethics would make for great classroom discussion. But I can’t summon much enthusiasm for it. It’s pretty bleak and parts of it are very disturbing. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (Miss Marple #3)

Another short book- my paperback was 207 pages- but this one felt MUCH longer. Intriguing premise: a young attractive blond woman is found strangled in a country estate library and of course there are many suspects. Miss Marple didn’t make much of an impression on me here and she disappears for much of the book. The end provides a great twist but it took forever to get there. I love Christie’s other great detective, Hercule Poirot – am I just being too hard on Miss Marple? ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

This was delightful; it reminded me of Elinor Lipman. A baseball player struggling with the “yips” and a youngish widow who isn’t exactly grieving meet when one rents an apartment in the other’s overly big house. Sparks smolder slowly and eventually burst into flames. I appreciated the modesty with which the romantic scenes were written ( I don’t really want a play by play.) This was a cute, smartly written novel about the value of good therapy, true friendship, and two people on the journey to wholeness ( but not co-dependent!) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A request for you Christie fans out there: What is your favorite Miss Marple book?

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

img_4355This book is not for everyone.  There’s lots of “language” and casual (kind of icky) sex, plus domestic abuse references and mental health issues – but I really enjoyed it and read it quickly – in two days! The main character, Queenie Jenkins, is compelling and interesting, complex and flawed. She nearly drove me crazy making some very poor choices but I was always invested in her story. Queenie is a 25-year-old black British woman of Jamaican heritage and has just “taken a break” with her long-time (white) boyfriend. While her personal life is falling apart, her physical health and professional life are also suffering. She has some good friends and a sweet extended family but is very reluctant to get therapy to address long-standing issues from her past that are sabotaging her present. I found her struggle with anxiety and depression very convincing and I empathized with her. Carty-Williams does a great job of portraying a family and a culture where mental health issues aren’t talked about or dealt with other than just basically saying, “Yes, life’s hard, now soldier on.”

However, there are moments of humor which go a long way towards breaking up the heavy issues. The jacket says it’s “darkly comic” and I’d agree with that. Really good stuff, if you want some contemporary fiction and are okay with your characters making questionable choices!  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Favorite passage:

“…well, he asked to buy me a drink, but I very firmly said no.”

“Oh, well done.”

“Thanks. He was one of those mainstream millenials, which wasn’t so appealing, but I wouldn’t have let him buy me a drink even if he wasn’t. He didn’t try to bang me on sight, though, so that’s something, I guess.”

“What’s a mainstream millenial?” Darcy asked.

“Have I made this term up?” I questioned myself. “I’m sure I’ve seen it on the Internet. You know, those men: bike riding, knitted sweater? Pretends Facebook isn’t important to him, but it really is?” I was met with a blank stare, so carried on. “Craft beer, start-ups, sense of entitlement? Reads books by Alain de Botton, needs a girlfriend who doesn’t threaten his mediocrity?”

“Oh, right,” Darcy said, not as mediocre-man-hating as me. “Anyway, well done, you! One of these days we’ll have a whole week of conversation where we can pass the Bechdel test!”

 

 

Two Big Books of Summer

Recently I read two of the biggest books of the summer: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. I LOVED one of them and liked the other. Let’s get to it.

img_4237I pre-ordered Big Sky a few months ago, something I rarely ever do – hello, library five days a week – but Atkinson is one of two authors I automatically make an exception for (the other is Jess Walter.) This is the fifth installment in her Jackson Brodie series, and I’ve loved every one of them so far. I didn’t know if she’d ever return to this beloved character. It’s been nine years since the previous one, Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m happy to report that this one satisfied my expectations and then some.

If you’ve never read one of these books, well, they’re hard to categorize. They’re not shelved in the mystery section of my library, even though they involve a private detective/ ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie. They’re multi-layered stories with lots of characters and threads that end up coming together eventually in unexpected ways. Atkinson has a talent for writing stories about very heavy and/or sad things but somehow letting the reader breathe a bit with dark humor, razor-sharp wit, and characters to root for.

It’s been so long since I’d read one that I’d kind of forgotten where we’d left off with Jackson. But Atkinson does a nice job giving us enough back story to catch us up.

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term “private detective” – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it.) Too Chandler-esque. It raised people’s expectations.

This one involves some very unsavory characters involved in sex trafficking – Jackson gets involved sort of obliquely because he saves a desperate man from throwing himself over a cliff. I hate to write too much about the plot because part of the joy of these books is piecing together how all these characters know one another and fit together. Suffice to say there is an underground of disgusting men taking advantage of young women and Jackson and an old friend, Reggie, who is now a policewoman, are investigating. What I loved about the book besides the puzzle was the characterization and the humor. Jackson is just a terrific character – he’s cynical and pessimistic but still got a good heart, loves his kids and his dog, and wants to help the vulnerable. In one of my favorite scenes he’s trying to counsel the chap he just saved from the cliff, and not doing a very good job:

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, Vince,” Jackson said, “sometimes you’re the bug.” That was what Mary Chapin Carpenter sang anyway, pace Dire Straights.

“I suppose,” Vince agreed, nodding slowly as he chewed on the last bit of toast. A good sign in Jackson’s book. People who were eating weren’t usually about to top themselves.

“And there’s no point in clinging on to things if they’re over,” Jackson continued. (Julia was right, perhaps counseling really wasn’t his forte.) “You know what they say” (or what Kenny Rogers would say), ” ‘you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ ” This was better, Jackson thought, all he had to do was utilize the lyrics from country songs, they contained better advice than anything he could conjure up himself.

I loved it, and I am hopeful that there will be at least one more installment in this series.

Gilbert’s City of Girls is a big, exuberant historical fiction novel about a young woman named Vivian. Well, at the beginning she’s an old woman reflecting on her life at the prompting of the daughter of her great love, who has written Vivian to try and find out just what exactly she was to her late father. So the story is essentially Vivian’s long, winding, roundabout answer. Most of the action takes place in New York City in 1940-41. Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and been sent to live in the care of her colorful aunt Peg, who owns and lives above a struggling theater called The Lily Playhouse.

This is a very detailed portrayal of a time and place, a love letter to that specific New York City, and Gilbert does a great job of putting the reader right there in the setting. It felt real and made me jealous of Vivian, who got to experience that New York before the post-war modernization boom and subsequent grimy decay of the 60’s and 70’s. Also there is a lot of fashion in this novel – Vivian has a natural gift for sewing and crafting outfits from scraps of fabric, which makes her very popular with the showgirls at the theater. I liked Vivian, but the first 140 pages or so didn’t convince me of the necessity of the story. It was nice, kind of fun, but didn’t feel essential – until Aunt Peg’s erstwhile husband Billy shows up from Hollywood with a surefire hit of an idea to reinvigorate the theater and make everyone some money. Then things started to happen and I became more invested. As we get towards the end of the novel and the man who becomes Vivian’s great love comes into the story, I could hardly read fast enough. This part moved me greatly and I ended the novel in tears. I love how Gilbert’s books are all so different from one another, but one thing she consistently does well is make the reader feel the complexities of romantic relationships. Not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, but that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real or valid. I also appreciated how Vivian came to own her sexuality over the course of the book. She became a woman who didn’t apologize for having a sex drive and that was refreshing, especially considering the time period.

…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

This was good. A bit uneven for me, but it gained steam as it went along and I’m glad I read it.

Have you read these? What books published this year have you loved?

 

 

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

91vWDBRqMqLWith that awesome opening, Oyinkan Braithwaite had me hooked from the start. Her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is quite the page-turner – a quirky, darkly funny, kind of sad, creepy depiction of sisters caught in a warped dynamic.

Korede is the responsible, plain-looking older sister, working as a nurse in a Lagos hospital. Ayoola is the younger, flightier, more beautiful sister who posts incessantly on Instagram and attracts men easily. We are drawn into the action immediately, as Ayoola asks for her sister’s help after she kills the man she’s been dating.

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.

“Are you angry at me?”

Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.

We learn more about the sisters’ childhood, their violent and abusive father. We start to understand more about how that affected them.

More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened. Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.

Korede is in love with a doctor at the hospital named Tade. He is unaware of how she feels, viewing her as a friend who really listens to him. Once Ayoola and Tade meet, a meeting Korede was desperate to block, a chain of events is set into motion that will give Korede the opportunity to break free from the family’s cycle of violence and dysfunction. Will she be strong enough to take it, though?

There are moments of humor sprinkled throughout the novel, enough to make this not a bleak book despite the subject matter.

“You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry too.”

“Do you? ‘Cause the other day, you were singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly.'”

Ayoola shrugs. “It’s a good song.”

I alternately felt sorry for and frustrated by both sisters. But I never lost interest or stopped wanting to turn pages. (I also LOVE the cover.)  This is a smart, insightful debut and I can’t wait to see what Braithwaite does next.