Book a Week Challenge – Week 4

WHAT’S PLAYING: Lady GaGaYoü and I

Vacation is over, and now it’s time to get back to work. This week’s book is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

A dystopian classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of Offred – not her real name, but a patronymic given to her by the new regime in an oppressive future America– and her life as a Handmaid. Forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of higher social status, Handmaids undergo regular medical tests and a monthly Ceremony in which their Masters attempt to impregnate them. As the novel progresses, Offred learns that many people bend the rules of the theocracy, even the ones who helped to put them in place. People who fought the hardest for a return to “simple values” refuse to live by them, rendering the theocratic government even more intimidating for its hypocrisy.

Offred’s shadowy memories of her husband and daughter provide relief from the brutality of her new life. But these remembrances are tenuous, made all the more indistinct by Atwood’s lyrical prose. Facts appear to merge into one another. History becomes immaterial. Despite the horrific regime and unimaginable tortures she endures, Offred’s voice is reflective. Rather than bitterness and rage, there’s a sense of ennui about her. She’s not completely passive though. Throughout the narrative, she shows flashes of contempt, desire, slyness, and, of course, anger. The mosaic style composition works well, but can also make the story hard to follow. All the same, Atwood’s astonishing skill as a writer and brilliant characterization kept me turning the pages.

This book scared the hell out of me: the idea that women could be reduced to nothing more than invisible, powerless vessels. As my father is fond of saying, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with good intentions.”

Bottom Line: Fiercely political and bleak, yet witty and wise, this novel is a must read.

Favorite Line: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others….We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

What I learned: As much as you can, strive for relevance. The book is a classic because it speaks to something deep in the human psyche: fear of the loss of freedom, basic human rights and liberties. It’s powerful stuff, made even more powerful by Atwood’s skill.

Coming up next week: “Poison Study” by Maria V. Snyder.

Book a Week Challenge – Week 3

WHAT’S PLAYING: Rednex “Cotton Eyed Joe

This week’s book is “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden.

The story follows the life of a young Japanese girl, Chiyo, who is sold to a geisha house during the Great Depression. Because of her unusual grey eyes and intelligence, she manages to climb to the top of Japanese society as the celebrated geisha and dancer, Sayuri. When Sayuri loses her glamorous lifestyle amid the devastation of World War II, she must call upon her beauty and intelligence to find her way to independence and true love.

Golden does a brilliant job of bringing WWII era Japan to life, paying particular attention to the nuances of Japanese culture. Vivid images and subtle description draws the reader into the world of the geisha, a world of tradition, ritual, rivalries, and politics. One can’t help but follow Sayuri on her quest to become a geisha and find true love.

The most amazing thing is how Golden, an American male, manages to portray the life of a Japanese geisha. He captures the emotions of his characters perfectly while describing Japanese life with a genuine and eloquent voice.

There is a minor downside. The story bogs down slightly sometimes due to the meticulous level of detail Golden uses in describing rituals and defining numerous Japanese terms. Still, you can’t help but cheer for Chiyo/Sayuri as she uses her brains more than her beauty to make an independent life for herself.

Bottom line, this is a brilliant debut novel.

Favorite line (image): “We watched the flame burn through the cord, and the lantern came floating down, until the wind caught it again and rolled it through the air right toward us with a trial of gold dust streaking the sky. The ball of fire seemed to settle on the ground, but then my mother and I watched as it rose up on the current of the wind, floating straight for us. I felt my mother release me, and then all at once she threw her arms into the fire to scatter it. For a moment we were both awash in sparks and flames; but then the shreds of fired drifted into the trees and burned out, and no one – not even my mother – was hurt.”

What I learned: Do your homework. When I think about the amount of research that must have gone into writing this novel, it boggles my mind. But this is exactly the level of detail I should strive for in my own writing. I tend to focus so intently on things like plot, structure, and character development, that I neglect setting and description. This book shows just how important setting can be. Japan is just as much of a character as the novel’s protagonist. Whenever I find myself discounting the importance of world building, I’ll revisit this story for some much-needed perspective.

Coming next week: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

The First Ten of Fifty-Two Books for 2012

WHAT’S PLAYING: Lil Wayne “How to Love”

So, last week I decided to read a book a week for an entire year. It’s not really about the number; it’s about reconnecting with one of the most important things in my life: reading.

That being said, I’m having a hard time getting started. The idea of reading fifty-two books is ambitious to say the least. At the same time, fifty-two is a paltry number compared to all the novels I want to read.

So to make things easier, I’ve narrowed the list down to the first ten. I’ll be posting reviews on each one, depending on when I finish them. Some of these I have read before and want to revisit. Others are new additions to my ever-expanding library. But they all have one thing in common: masters of the craft wrote them, people I hope to emulate in my own writing some day. (And please, remember that I’m reading these books as a consumer. Not a critic.)

1.Witches Abroadby Terry Pratchett

Bet you saw that one coming. This is one of my favorite Discworld novels, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off the New Year.

2.The Enchantress of Florenceby Salman Rushdie

This is a new addition. I’ve heard great things about it, and I’m a huge fan of his writing. I can’t wait to read it.

3. “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden

Lyrical prose, haunting imagery, and a strong protagonist. Toss in an epic love story set amidst World War II, and you have a book worth revisiting.

4.The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood

No reading list would be complete without this unnervingly realistic portrayal of a dystopian future.

5.Poison Studyby Maria V. Snyder

A friend of mine recommended this one. I don’t usually go in for fantasy-romance novels, but she insisted I give it a try.

6. “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman

I grew up watching the movie. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the book was so much better.

7.Everything is Broken” by John Shirley

Another favorite author — not to mention a kick ass mentor – this is John Shirley’s latest. It’s scheduled for release on January 24. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

8. “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

I am ashamed to admit that – while I am a rabid Neil Gaiman fan – I have yet to read this one. An oversight I intend to remedy soon.

9. Luka and the Fire of Life” by Salman Rushdie

The first repeat on my list, but not the last. I picked this one because I wanted a kid’s book on the list, though from what I hear, this book is so much more than that.

10. “Butcher Bird” by Richard Kadrey

Tattoos and demons and witches, oh my! An excellent choice to round out the list. (Plus, I’m kind of digging the ink.)

And there you have it. The first ten of my fifty-two books. What about you? What’s on your must read list for 2012? (If you have any recommendations, I’m open to suggestions.)

I’ll be honest. I don’t know if I’ll be able to pull this one off, but no matter how many books I read – fifty or five – the important thing is that I’ll be reading.

Best New Year’s ever!