It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Good morning, fellow Monday Morning Readers!  It's been a long time since I have been able to participate in a weekly meme of any kind, so welcome to Book Addict Reviews any fellow bloggers who have not been here before!  I'm glad to be back!

This week, I finished When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.  Amazing speculative fiction a la The Handmaid's Tale about a woman's place in society and reproductive choice.

I am also reading The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson.  This young adult novel tells the story of a group of mixed race friends who start a website to sell t-shirts to people with latte-colored skin as a way to raise money for a summer vacation.  What starts as a joke about their shared experiences as people of mixed racial backgrounds becomes a social justice movement, leading to serious consequences for the girls when their school labels them terrorists.

I'm about to start My Name is Mary Sutter, a historical fiction novel about a woman fighting to be recognized for her medical skills in the mid-18th century.  I guess I must be on a feminist fiction kick right now, since the last few things I have read are falling in that theme.  Given the current state of political discourse about women in this country, I guess maybe that makes sense...

Finally, I am listening to The Grapes of Wrath on audiobook.  I'm glad that I decided to listen rather than read it, because I really feel like the narrator is doing a wonderful job with the character's voices and emotions.  It is the tale of the Joad family-chased off their land during the Depression by the landowners and their tractors, the family takes off west in a converted jalopy, hoping to find work and prosperity in the promised land of California.  Heartbreaking, infuriating, filled with moments of quiet grace, this American classic is a must read.

Have a wonderful reading week, everyone!

When She Woke, AKA The Handmaid's Tale for the 21st Century

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I think I have mentioned here on the blog before that while I was raised by a feminist and called myself a feminist even as a young teen, I didn't really get feminism until I read Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. Atwood is a master of speculative fiction, and her chilling vision of what might become of women in a future where our reproduction is controlled by men made me understand just how precious freedom of choice is, and how hard we have to work to ensure it.

While The Handmaid's Tale is powerful and disturbing, at the time it was written the fictional future it reflected, while not unrealistic, felt far away.  The near future world created by Hillary Jordan in her speculative fiction novel, When She Woke, feels frighteningly plausible and terrifyingly close.  Centered around the same themes as Atwood's classic feminist novel, but updated with 21st century geo-politics and technology, When She Woke tells the story of Hannah, a young woman from a fundamentalist religious background, who was convicted of murder after getting an illegal abortion.  In this near future, a sexually transmitted disease, carried by men but affecting only women, has rendered a large portion of the female population infertile.  In the panic that ensued, the United States overturned Roe v. Wade.  In addition, an economic depression led to the closure of prisons in favor of melachroming convicted criminals-literally changing their skin color to green or yellow or blue or red depending on their crime.  Hannah wakes up as a Red, the color of murderers.  When she is released from her detention, she becomes a social outcast.  Her family essentially disowns her for taking the life of her unborn child, and they send her to an enlightenment camp to try and "save" her and help her return to God.  But enlightenment means facing daily cruelty and abuse, and eventually Hannah is forced to leave.  Thus begins a journey from powerless to powerful; from weakness to strength; from blind, unquestioning faith to a new understanding of God and his relationship to the evil "others"-atheists, homosexuals, abortionists, socialists, non-Christians-she has always been taught to fear and hate.

The title refers not just to the day that Hannah woke up as a Red, but to the very real awakening of her ability to think for herself, to question her almost slavish devotion to her evangelical brand of Christianity, to envision a life for herself where she decides her path, rather than having it laid out before her by her father and then her husband.  The real world is a shock to someone as sheltered from it has Hannah had been.  Hannah comes to understand that morality is much more complex than the narrow, black-and-white worldview of her conservative faith.  How to rationalize the cruelty of her fellow Christians, or the kindness of the unsaved, when she has been taught that strict adherence to God's law-as interpreted by preachers, fathers, and husbands-is the only way to please God and achieve a place in heaven.

When She Woke lacks the amazing facility with language that Atwood's work always displays.  But what it lacks in literary-ness it makes up for in strong characterization and a quick-paced, exciting story.  Hannah has a rich internal life, and the journey that she takes-both physical and spiritual-as a result of her status as a Chrome is deeply moving.  But what struck me even more was how authentic the made-up future felt.  Global pandemic, war with Iran, water wars in Africa, the rise of religious fundamentalism...every one a possible outcome of the current state of our world.  Is it implausible that Iran could get a nuclear weapon and bomb the US?  It might not be likely, but it's certainly not impossible.  Experts have been warning about wars over water for at least the last decade.  Bird flu, swine flu, SARS-we've seen just how our increasingly global culture can lead to the spread of disease.  And the beliefs of the religious extremists in this book are awfully close to the Pat Robertson/Rick Santorum version of today-except it has become the law of the land.  How much would it take for the Promise Keepers to become the fictional Fist of God-a group that hunts down and exterminates anyone it perceives as immoral?  When She Woke is a powerful wake-up call for anyone who cares about reproductive rights, the separation of church and state, or social justice.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In this rather quirky novel, Krauss tells the story of love, loneliness, and loss as experienced by two very different people.  Leo Gursky is an octogenarian living in a crowded apartment in New York.  Growing up in Poland in the 1930s, he fell deeply in love with a girl from his village.  When she emigrated to American just before World War II, Leo lost touch with her.  After the war, when he was forced to hide or be sent to the concentration camps with the other Jews, he made his way to New York.  But nothing turned out as he'd thought.  In the present day, Leo feels invisible, and when he goes out he purposely does things to attract attention in order to prove to himself that he still exists.

Alma Singer is a young girl dealing with the loss of her father.  Her mother Charlotte is fading away, spending hours in her room translating old books and remembering her beloved husband.  Convinced that her mother needs to fall in love again to survive, Alma tries to find men for her mother to date.  When a mysterious man writes to Charlotte asking her to translate her father's favorite book, Alma tries to discover his identity, hopeful that he can help her mother re-enter the world.

What connects these two characters is a book, The History of Love.  The book, the main character of which Alma was named after, becomes central to the lives of both characters.  To Leo it represents his past, his love, and the son he never knew.  To Alma it represents her father, her mother's grief, and a possible future for her family.  As their connection to each other is slowly revealed through the course of the novel, we understand the triumph of the human spirit over fear, loneliness, and doubt.

Krauss' use of language in this novel is lyrical and moving.  Her treatment of her two rather eccentric characters is warm and kind, especially Leo's character.  He is a cantankerous old man, which would make him rather unlikeable if the main target of his frequent sarcasm wasn't himself.  Alma's character is very relateable, if a little less realistic.  She often reads older than her supposed age in the story, but it works well enough.  The story goes back and forth between Leo and Alma as narrators, which I some people find challenging to keep straight, but I did not find it distracting or off-putting in this book.   The story is heartbreaking-it highlights the way that forces outside of our control can cause our life to go in directions that we never expected.  The bottom line is that life is not fair-it certainly wasn't fair to either Alma or Leo.  But despite that, there are opportunities for love, tenderness, and redemption.

How I Was Defeated By Middlemarch

Saturday, April 07, 2012

I will admit it- hell, I have admitted it.  A rather large (too large?) part of my identity is wrapped up in not just being a reader, but in being well-read.  Sure, I've lied about reading books that I really only started and couldn't finish because they are high-faultin' classics that make me sound smart...haven't we all? (please, don't judge).  But just this once I am going to come clean-I was defeated by George Eliot and her classic Middlemarch.

There is nothing about Middlemarch that I shouldn't love as a reader and a feminist.  Female author fools the world by writing as a man to get her novel about a young woman  bucking the system taken seriously.  With themes of a women's role in society, religious hypocrisy, and political reform-if this book was tea I would want to drink it.  But apparently the book itself is better for me in the abstract than in the reality.  I simply could not get through it.

I first tried to read it in college, during a summer when I was determined to read the classics-with-a-capital-C.  I re-read Jane Eyre that summer, as well as Wuthering Heights, The Old Man and The Sea, and A Tale of Two Cities.  But when I tried to read Middlemarch, I found myself putting it down in favor of doing things like, oh, scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush or hand-waxing my 10 year old Renault.  I was relieved when it came time to go back to school and have an excuse to put it aside "for the semester"-you know, if a semester lasted 20 years.

OK, enter the advent of digital audiobooks.  Surely, if I could listen to a really good narrator read the words aloud, I would be able to get invested in the emotional life of the characters and not be distracted by the old-fashioned language.  Surely, the voice of the narrator would bring to life the long passages where Dorothea is rhapsodizing about Mr. Casaubon in her head, all he's-so-righteous-so-what-if-he-is-pedantic-and-old-and-not-that-attractive.  "And the audio version is 30 hours long, so I will certainly get my money's worth!", thought I.  Well, there's $14.95 wasted...I couldn't even get through the first two hours.  I listen as I drive, and I found my thoughts drifting to such an extent that I would realize I was home and could not list one event from the preceding 25 minutes.  So, I hereby admit defeat.  Go ahead and feel smug, all you Smarty McSmartypants who actually read this book.  Hmmmm, or did you?