Monday, July 10, 2017

#CBR9 Review #15: Pop by Gordon Korman

There’s a café in our city with a little “library” that encourages visitors to swap books (leave one, take one), and I’m pretty sure at the moment they have about 4 full sets of all the Twilight series? In any case, on Canada Day, I impulsively did a switcheroo, and got my friend to point at a random book for me to take, which led me to picking up Pop by Gordon Korman. Well, initially it was something like “Vampie Lovers 2” or whatever but I said, I can’t read this if I haven’t read the FIRST one, now can I? But I digress…

Pop is a young adult novel, focused on a teenage boy named Marcus, who has just moved into a new, small town and hopes to join their elite and much-loved high school football team. Of course there is the typical ruffling of feathers and issues really settling in to the new town and being accepted from the team which we come to expect from a lot of YA sports stories, right down to him catching the eye of the gorgeous cheerleader who of course is also the current captain’s ex (but she’s supposed to be different and original from all the other cheerleaders we’ve seen in other stories because she like, actually loves and knows about football). A lot of these hiccups and conflicts work out very predictably, or even just kind of fizzle out without much thought or attention put into them, which was kind of annoying, but ultimately this probably happened as the main plot is focused on Marcus’ relationship with an eccentric older man in town, who happens to be an ex-NFL player known as the “King of Pop”, named Charlie.

Marcus meets Charlie by chance, and Marcus begins training with his new, middle-aged friend in the local park, learning how to do better hits and tackles, which Charlie is a master of. But this older man is a bit eccentric and erratic, which is brushed off as being “quirky” by the local neighbourhood. Yet it is clear that something else is up with Charlie, which we soon learn to be in the form of a degenerative brain disease as a result of too many hits and concussions during his football career. This is a big family secret, yet I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody else in this pretty small town figured it out and put the pieces together based on the way that Charlie acts and interacts with everyone in the novel. It soon becomes Marcus’ big secret as well, as the two get into shenanigans and he tries to not throw this man who doesn’t have all his wits about him under the bus. The novel is clearly trying to tap into some more serious subject matter for the young audience, yet it never quite reaches any emotional depth, even with some twists of fate near the end of the story: everything just kind of shakes out in a reasonably predictable manner. 

Some pros I found with this novel is that it’s straightforward, not overly complicated, and definitely tries to include some serious themes in it. Oh, and I also learned a few things about football, so the author clearly knows a thing or two about that! But the cons come in the fact that it just wasn’t that engaging: all the struggles to push the story forward never felt like there was all that much at stake, and then there’s a drastic mood shift at the end as if to make sure there’s at least some kind of emotional response to grab the reader. I also felt like a lot of the characters were just so static, with no real progression or changes. And I couldn’t help but wonder why no one else in the town suspected that Charlie had some brain damage from his career or that his erratic behavior was not normal and that it stayed so secret? Especially given that he was a bit of a local celebrity?

So, I guess at the end of the day I would say this book is fine, but nothing super special that I will remember for a long time. It might catch the interest of some younger readers who don’t want to get into anything too complicated, but more than anything it’s just coming off as a blip of a read for me that I didn’t really connect with at all. Everything just glided along and didn’t really give me anything new or engaging to work with. Que sera sera.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, June 29, 2017

#CBR9 Review #14: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

A quick little foray into the world at night, when people exist in almost a different realm. After Dark takes place in Tokyo, over the course of one night, and centers around a small selection of people whose activities all end up interconnected somehow. But it’s not quite so simple, as there seems to be some other kind of… I don’t want to say supernatural, but fantastical elements at play as well. It’s a simple and quick read, that comes across as very gentle and thoughtful, yet I can’t say as I was 100% sold on it in it’s entirety.

After Dark features twining stories centered around a number of people, including: a young woman trapped in a deep sleep, the girl’s sister who wants nothing more than to stay away form home all night, an old acquaintance of the two sisters who wants to be more acquainted, three women working at a love hotel, a young Chinese prostitute who is the victim of violence, and the businessman who hurt her. Everyone lives separate lives which all influence the world around them, and we as the viewer see all of these interactions and connections as if viewing everything from a camera in a movie where we may want to get involved but can’t. This is especially apparent when dealing with the young sleeping woman, Eri, and adds to the sense of mystery in the novel. Of course, some of the book’s characters and their stories are more interesting than others, which made me almost want to speed through those who I didn’t enjoy as much. But I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, as I feel that they all added something different to the book which filled in some of the open spaces.

Overall, this novel’s tone is quiet, thoughtful, gentle, and mysterious. Much like the wee, still hours of the night. It is also super quick to read through, and I almost wished there was more as I was really enjoying the mood. But I also kind of wish there was more to it for another reason: there was maybe a little too much left loose in the wind. Ambiguity sometimes works, but I just had so many questions left unanswered, and just needed a little sliver more information. In particular, to do with the somewhat supernatural elements of the novel. What were they about? Why were they happening? Is something at play here? Do they really add anything at all or is it just a quick aside? I just needed one more piece of information, and I think I could have dealt with it a little better.

So, at the end of the day I didn’t mind reading this short little novel at all. It was sweet and cute, though maybe the characters and end-game could have been developed a little more as most of the characters ended up being pretty static (being such a short book there wasn’t that much time but I do think they could have been fleshed out more). That said, it was enjoyable and whimsical, kind of like the other works by Murakami I have read so far. Will it be something that stays with me for a long time? Mmm, probably not, but I don’t regret picking this one up at all.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, June 23, 2017

#CBR9 Review #13: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Alright, this is a conflicting one. I decided to read this book as I saw it listed on a few of those “100 books to read before you die” or “how many of these essential books have you read: most people have only read 8” lists you sometimes see floating about, and now I wonder… why? Why is it on those lists? Is it really considered a classic? Has it really help up over time? Is there not more scrutiny of it now and given all the developments after it’s release? Which, I really didn’t know about at the time, and am now aware of, and is therefore part of why I find this read a bit conflicting when coming to review it. It’s a little bit of that “looking at the art separately” from the creator idea. In this case, it may be more so considering the time period in which it was written and whether or not over time it holds up. I don’t know, I just found that a lot of what was going on in this novel made me want to ask questions or be concerned, yet nothing was really looked at very critically? More just, romanticizing everything, if that makes sense.

As for the contents of the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a well-known (fictional) geisha from Japan named Sayuri as she retells her life’s story. As a young girl, Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) and her sister were essentially taken from her life in a small fishing town to be sent to an okiya in Kyoto’s Gion district, which is the most prominent geisha district in Kyoto. From there, we see her as she struggles to learn to work within the house she now resides, trying to become a geisha, and then work as one as the years go by and the nation of Japan is affected by World War II. Issues that come into play within Sayuri’s life are the politics of becoming a geisha, the competition of other women working within the profession, and garnering the attention of men who can make or break a women’s livelihood in Gion. One of the biggest overarching threads, however, is Sayuri’s affection for a man known as the Chairman, who she develops feelings for over the course of her life. Fundamentally, this book could be viewed as a story of overcoming obstacles and working hard to make a place in life, while also delving into a culture that many deem to be both beautiful and mysterious. And that’s where my first conflict of the mind came into play while reading this book.

Before reading this novel, I was aware of the film that came out in 2005 based off of it winning some Academy Awards for design and such. And… that’s about it. Oh, and I have a tiny little bit of knowledge regarding what it is that geishas are and do. I was not, however, aware of some of the controversy regarding this novel and the contents within it. You may have known this already but for the sake of people like myself who did not, here is the gist:
Arthur Golden’s novel is a fictional novel, yet there is a reality to it, in that he uses real locations and a real culture to try and paint a story that feels real. He obviously did research into different names, places, customs, etc, but how much of this is truly accurate? Enter Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who was interviewed by Golden for the novel, yet later sued when her identity was not kept anonymous despite having agreed upon this. Having her identity released led her to face serious backlash from the geisha community, which traditionally had a certain code of silence or secrecy to it, to the point that she reportedly received death threats for both dispensing this knowledge, and also for information in the novel being inaccurate and painting geisha as little more than prostitutes. Iwasaki later wrote her own autobiography which reportedly paints a very different picture of the life of geisha in the 20th century. The issue was eventually settled out of court and I am now actually pretty interested to hear what sort of life she depicts.

And so, I wonder what the truth is: is this story factual but now Iwasaki is trying to cover her tracks? Or has Arthur Golden fantasized this “mysterious” culture and tried to pass it off as reality (or at least, a realistic fiction)? It is hard to say. And does it matter if we are aware of this novel being fiction in the first place? Hmmmm, maybe it does if this is one of the most well-known works surrounding the life and culture of geisha’s, which many take to be pretty accurate or as realism.

But setting that controversy aside for a moment, what if we just looked at the novel for what it is: separating the art from the artist, as I said earlier. Because fundamentally, at it’s heart Memoirs of a Geisha is a story about a young woman overcoming a lot of hardships, working hard and being able to make a life for herself, following what she believes to be her destiny. And really, the idea behind it is quite sweet, and the writing is lovely and flowing with a few beautiful instances here and there. Yet at other times I feel like perhaps the author got a little caught up in the poetic nature of writing and ended up creating something that aims to be profound and emotive, but is really just word-salad (on more than one occasion during reading I thought to myself, “I see him trying to say something but this just doesn’t mean anything…”). And while the story does aim to capture the beauty and artistry of geisha life, succeeding in a few parts, there is also something so un-critical in examining this young girl’s life and the things that goes on in it. It’s almost like a preoccupation with romanticizing this “strange” and “other” culture and traditions, to the point where the character we are supposed to follow through this fantastical and beautiful world does little besides look pretty and do what others want from her.

This is not to say that I think Sayuri is a total wet-noodle who doesn’t work hard, but that the women in the novel (aka, the whole center of this world) have little to no agency. Or rather, if they do, they are painted as cruel, old, or haggard. Everything is done and decided by men: the way the women speak, act, how they dress, it’s all very beautiful and poised, but ultimately for the purpose of men to view and grow fond of. It is especially annoying to me having the conversations of the men and the geisha together portrayed, as it so often seems like the geisha are said to be clever but put on this “don’t ask me, I’m just a silly girl who makes silly comments!” cutesy performance. You know Cool Girl in Gone Girl? Not everything is done for men, and yet… it feels like it in this novel. Well, it’s either done for a man or because their fortunes said it was a fortuitous day. The geisha’s whole life and livelihood depends on it, after all! And not to mention, Sayuri’s whole life is essentially based on the fact that she is extremely pretty (but doesn’t know it, of course! Because as soon as you know you look good as a woman, you are nasty and conceited like the character Hatsumono is portrayed in the novel. Didn’t you know this?), and people are constantly telling her what to do and how to do it. Even when Sayuri does decide to take some action in her life and follow her heart, only to find that she may have made a mistake, she is “saved” by a man, and we find that her whole life and career as a geisha has really been a product of a man’s doing. And when women are supportive of one another in the novel, it often feels like in addition to their fondness of one another, there is also some other gain to be made from it. The women in this novel are never really a united front, but super catty with one another and are fighting over the male attention to get ahead. And I get being competitive like that, especially in an industry that relies on male patrons, but can we not ever have a story where women are maybe sad about not getting as far as their friends, but still super happy for their successes? I may not be super happy about where my life is right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for my friends who are finding their own happiness and living their dreams! We don’t have to fight amongst ourselves all the time: that’s how we are kept down, by not uniting. But at this point I may be reading into this aspect of the novel and it’s relation to how I feel about the world a little too much.

But in any case, the artistry behind geishas truly is remarkable, and I feel like Golden sees this, and that may be why he wanted to create a beautiful picture. The problem is that by so heavily romanticizing everything, it almost feels like in a way he is romanticizing the suffering involved. I couldn’t help but feel gross when the life of these young girls were painted in such an uncritical fashion with simply the narrator’s voice saying “ this was traditional” or “how it was at the time” as if just because that’s the way things were, we shouldn’t question it. It’s almost like a cop-out, having the narrator just unquestioning and supporting everything like this. I mean, Sayuri and her sister were essentially sold, and her sister became a sex slave for a while, all while they were both teenagers. These young apprentices are shown as going around and getting accustomed to the men while the men look them over to grow fond of them while they are but 15 years old or so: they are groomed to catch the attention of grown men when they are still children themselves. Sayuri was even seen catching grown men’s eyes at the young age of 12. And it’s just a part of the story, and I was really creeped out by it. She meets the Chairman when she is 14 years old and decides she wants nothing more than to be this grown man’s mistress. And look, I had crushed on older men and celebrities when I was young, but this book painted that attitude as just so normal and not to be wondered about. There are also parts about people fighting to pay for these young girls’ virginities (which a lot of geishas have since said is not a real thing that happens)? It’s like those creepy men who are just waiting for young girls to “turn 18” so it’s not illegal. But it’s still gross for you to be leering at a teenage girl, you scumbag! Oh, but of course in this novel, it is seen as some sort of big success if you are able to sell your virginity for a high price, which means men desire you more than other girls. (Me, internally sighing: the sexual approval of men is not the end-all-be-all). And when this occurs for Sayuri, it is not shown as a romantic moment but very clinical, which I guess isn’t a bad way to do it, but then after the fact it’s like she’s had some sort of “awakening” because a random man dispassionately shoved his penis inside her, and she suddenly acts like she’s more mature or aware now than those girls who have not yet had this experience. Like… okay. I guess. Kind of an antiquated view of things, which is why I earlier said that maybe this book just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny over time (it was originally published in 1997, so 20 years ago now).

I guess, overall, it’s just really not critical about anything. Or doesn’t really give explanations as to how certain things affect people: for instance, how do the wives of these men feel about them having mistresses? Do they know? If they are cool with it, that’s all good, I support healthy polyamory. But if they aren’t, then that’s another matter. And I just feel like so many things are spoken of so matter-of-fact like “that’s just how it is” with a shrug, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question our social norms and customs and how things go. Are people being hurt by this? Is there a darker side here? Because it sounds like there definitely might be! But then again, what is the truth! This is what I mean by things not holding up over time: these attitudes are not the same as we have now, and even just 20 years ago we thought and behaved differently in regards to a lot of things. And especially when I look at the fact that this novel seems as though it was written to a more Western audience, I can’t help but feel like this romanticizing of the traditions and life as being so beautiful is presented in a way to say “look how they do things”, as if it’s this voyeuristic look at this mysterious “other,” in particular because the subject of geisha’s itself is often considered to be elusive and secretive.

Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha is not a bad novel, and the writing is quite lovely. It’s just that I couldn’t help but question everything I was reading and wonder a) What is the truth? And b) Are you really going to just skip by these certain topics and moments as if they are nothing? I mean, maybe I do have a tendency to overthink things, but that’s where my brain was all while reading this novel. I don’t know if I liked it or how to really feel about it. But what I do know is that the artistry of geishas is beautiful, as are some of the streets of the Gion district (which I recently saw during a trip to Japan). Perhaps I need to learn more about this culture and profession now.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, June 16, 2017

#CBR9 Review #12: Perfume - The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Well this was… an experience. And I don’t know that it was a good one? It’s kind of funny, me reading a novel that is so focused on scent and a man with an extraordinary sense of smell, when I myself have an absolutely horrid sense of smell. Honestly, it has to be incredibly strong for me to ever notice any kind of scent (this started happening when I suddenly developed allergic polyps in my nose a few years ago, but anyways). But this book definitely made me worried about the way that I personally smell, now. And whenever I go to play basketball and the gym stinks I am suddenly convinced that the smell is coming from me and I just can’t smell it all the time for some reason… But I digress! Let’s get on with the book.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man whose sense of smell is unparalleled. It’s like, a Daredevil-level sense, wherein he can basically see in the dark, smell every individual person and their emotions, know the different components of every object, etc. Honestly, it seems… overwhelming. And Süskind does a good job in painting a picture for what these things may smell like (even for someone with a poor sense of smell, like myself). Sometimes it’s disgusting but it is very visceral. Now, apart from this sense of smell, Grenouille can be characterized as 1) having no smell himself, and 2) as being cold and distant from really understanding or connecting with humans. We may say that part of this has to do with his early life, yet there is something about him even as a baby that just makes people want to get away from him. It’s almost as though there is something inherently evil or inhuman about him, which in fact makes it difficult for people to connect to, or for him to want to really interact with others either. And that, in a way, makes him hard to understand as a character. He just, does what he does because that’s what he wants. And so I had an extremely difficult time connecting to this character, which is unfortunate given that the entire novel revolves around him and his activities. In any case, we follow Grenouille as he learns the art of perfuming, abandons humanity, comes back to it, becomes obsessed with the scent of particular women, and searches to create the most appealing personal aroma to douse himself with in order to make people love and desire him. It is through his skill with scent that he manipulates and looks to gain power over the people he has no clue how to connect with.

From a technical standpoint, the writing in this novel is easy to follow, but stuffed with enough detail that it is engaging and really creates a clear image of what is going on. Süskind has clearly put a lot of effort into researching different arts such as that of tannery and perfuming, which almost verged onto the edge of being a little dry, but never quite falling into the boring side of things. The story, however, I was not a fan of. Just as I said it was hard to connect with Grenouille as a character, it was thereby difficult to connect with his story. It almost seemed overly fantastical with the intent to shock, but missing that certain aspect of the psychology of Grenouille, which would have really gone into the shocking or disturbing realm, I think. It’s almost as if everything was too perfunctory and explanatory, even when emotions were running high for certain characters.

It did get me thinking, however, about how everyone does have their own individual scent which can mark them. Yet this book seemed to place such a high importance on this, as though a person’s scent could influence other’s very strongly. And I mean, maybe we find people more attractive if they smell nice or want to not be so close to them when they smell bad, but even the subtleties of individual’s scents were highlighted here which kept making me… I don’t want to say “paranoid” while reading this, but it make me a little uncomfortable wondering about that, or how my life has been affected by how I smell? I don’t know, but it was a weird feeling.

In any case, I just didn’t find this book to be engaging overall, whether this be because of the perfunctory tone, or the distant nature of the main character which made it hard to really get into. I mean, we are supposed to be following this character and at least be interested and invested in what happens to him, but I didn’t find him engaging at all. And I think even starting off the bat with there being something wrong and inhuman about him at the beginning as a baby took away from even wanting to connect with or become invested in Grenouille as a character: if he has no humanity and is just inherently evil, then all discussion of his place within the society he roams and any relation to his from the reader is basically a futile endeavor. At least, that’s how I felt right from the beginning, and was never really able to overcome.

P.S: I now find out that Perfume is also a movie, starring Ben Whishaw, who honestly, I think could bring some kind of charisma to the character (then again, I am biased because I love him). Yet I’m confused as to how it would be possible to convey smells and the power of scents through the medium of film in an effective way? At least in novel form the description can really touch on human memories of scent and the brain can conjure these things up. I just don’t know. I probably won’t bother watching it in any case, given my distaste for the story after reading it.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, June 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #11: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This book has been sitting on my kindle for a few years now, after trying to start it on a couple of occasions to no avail (mostly because I ended up getting distracted by different readings for school). But I finally got around to it! Whilst also in the midst of the tv adaptation. Which, I have to say, I am absolutely loving: it definitely expands on the world presented in the book, allowing different characters to be more developed, stick around for bigger parts of the story (rather than being a small blip as some are in the book), and also allow us to see a lot more of the larger story at play that is definitely present in the novel, just more on a sub-level that we do not directly see or get to interact with as readers. In particular, I found the character of Laura Moon to be a bit lacking or not fully developed in the book, but she is being given a lot more breathing and growing room in the show which is absolutely fantastic! But that’s not what this review is about, so let’s chop to it.

American Gods is the story of a man who goes by Shadow Moon, as he is sucked into working for a man called Mr. Wednesday, who is… well, a God. But an old one who along with many of the other “old Gods” in America are having a difficult time in the present day (some of their iterations in other parts of the world, however, are doing just fine), as less and less people remember and praise them, thus resulting in a loss of power. “New Gods”, however, are starting to crop up, in the form of things that modern-day people spend so much time and energy on: technology, media, etc etc. And so, what does this call for? A war between the old Gods and the new, of course!

While the overall story follows Shadow on his (very confusing) journey with Wednesday, we also get little episodes here and there with other Gods and characters, which are very interesting, and very much lend to an overall feeling of this book being about the immigrant experience, both for the Gods as well as for some different characters highlighted in the "Coming to America" chapters. These little episodes also make the book almost feel like a comic book at times, and I often found that I wanted more from these side characters that only show up for one tiny little chapter only to disappear. Some of them definitely tie in with the rest of the story or give us another look at some of the Gods during their lives in America, but I would have loved to have seen more of a connection with some of them.

I am a big fan of mythology, so I really enjoyed this book and coming in contact with different Gods, some of which I recognized and others that I didn’t. It made me want to look more into some of these new “old Gods” that were being represented by the book! Some of them, however, I just couldn’t figure out who or what they were trying to be manifestations of! I’m sure with a little digging I could figure it out, though.

All that being said, I do have to nitpick a little. It’s just minor things that stopped me from absolutely loving the novel. One is that I expected more from the battle or fight between the old and new Gods. Sure, there is some fighting and damage, but when you spend the entirety of a book building up to one particular event, you’d expect it to be more central, I guess? (I realize that this was also the issue I had with Good Omens… huh). The outcome and action surrounding is quite exciting and interesting, but I still just felt like something was lacking in the final 3rd or so of the novel. The second thing I would nitpick is that every now and then there would be some statement made by either a character or just narration that would make me roll my eyes, purely because of it’s crassness or seeming attempt to be vulgar and shocking, but just felt not entirely natural? It’s like, I get it, you’re edgy, now was that necessary? Like I said, though, this is nitpicking, but sometimes just a few little issues can really take me out of the experience which is unfortunate.

I am glad I finally got to reading American Gods, because it was a great book; both imaginative and entertaining. I definitely feel, however, that it’s one of those things that I should read again some time in the future, now that I know how everything plays out, because I know that there are some things that went right over my head or foreshadowing that I wouldn’t have noticed in this first run through. Because of that, I also don’t think it’s one of those books that you can only enjoy reading the first time around: I definitely feel like it would be one that a lot of people would enjoy reading multiple times. So we shall see how I find it on another go around, some time in the future!

But for now, I leave you with this post I found that made me laugh. Because honestly... BIG MOOD: 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

#CBR9 Review #10: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

What a contrast to go from a book that I gave 5 stars to something that I'm not sure ever fully engrossed me. While the odd story here or there within the collection peaked my interest, overall something was missing here. I have previously read Joe Hill's sublime graphic novel series Locke & Key --which was absolute breathtaking-- and therefore had some high hopes with this short-story collection. This, unfortunately, led to some disappointment on my part.

20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories, not necessarily all involving ghosts, but all involving some kind of supernatural or horror element to them. This open-ended topic leaves a big working range within which to create and present stories of all kinds of different topics and mood. From actual ghosts living inside movie theatres, to people turning into giant bugs, to a young boy making friends with an inflatable child, to a vampire hunter's children, to a museum of people's last breaths, there is something different on every page, and it was always interesting to see what new topic of imaginative twist would come into play this time.

Despite the imagination, however, I felt like a lot of the stories fell flat for one reason or the other. For instance, I found that some of the violence and gore to be found in a few of them felt like it was trying to be a big twist and clever yet really was very predictable. There is also the sense that Hill was really trying to create an air of mystery with his stories: not trying to give too much away, but allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with whatever imagination or horror their brains can come up with. This is usually a strong facet of a lot of great horror stories (and movies, as you don't want to show the monster too soon or give anything away), yet somehow this only worked in a few of these stories for me, while in the others it didn't entirely come through. It was as if I just needed one more scrap of information in order to tie everything together in some of the tales. It was just a little too empty at times, or ended too abruptly to really feel like a truly finished story. This is a tricky thing to do with short fiction, as it captures single moments in time which ultimately tell a bigger story with very little. But there also has to be a balance where you tell enough for it to really work, right? I don't know, but I had a hard time with this in a number of the stories, though that may have just been me.

Speaking of needing more, I also had some issues with a few of the characters. I know that it's hard to really develop a full character when you are working with limited pages and time in short stories, but a lot of them really just hit one note for me; in particular this was an issue with a lot of the secondary female characters and how they were described. I found most of them to be stereotypes (with a few other select characters), or there was too much/random emphasis on their bodies which didn't really need to be there except to mention that "hey, her shirt was clinging real nice to her nice boobs, guys. Just in case you were wondering." Oh, also, the word "faggot" was thrown around so casually a few times as if this is the go-to or only word to be used to insult or describe someone? I don't know but there never really felt like a need to have that in there, as it was never truly imperative, discussed, or added anything to the story. And when you have such a short span to create a complete story, you want everything to have a purpose (this also applies to the aforementioned description and talking about women's bodies with little to no purpose in my opinion).

With all my complaints and hesitations, you may think I would give this book but one star. Yet I refrain from doing so, because I would be lying to say that there weren't a couple of stories in this collection that I didn't enjoy. One entitled "20th Century Ghost" regarding a young woman's ghost who can be found within an old-style movie theatre. This story was so gentle and had a beautiful, touching, yet sad ending, that I absolutely adored. The other story I found to be quite appealing was entitled "My Father's Mask," which at first I thought may be falling into the pattern of being too vague and confusing for me to really fill in the gaps and understand the mystery there, but by the end I found it quite imaginative and really sparked my interest as to what the events would be after the conclusion of this one moment in time for the characters. "The Widow's Breakfast" also left me wanting more, though I could not tell you why, there was something about it.

Despite not having one specific theme in mind for the whole collection , there was something that tied everything together, and that was a feeling of loneliness and longing in every story. Maybe the real ghosts in the 20th century (and now) are those who feel alone or are looking for connection in our world? This overarching sense filled me with a real sense of melancholy throughout a lot of the stories, and so while maybe I didn't particularly enjoy the majority of them, there was still some piece of emotional resonance that I felt. It's an odd thing, really.

Así que... lo siento, pero no sé. I just don't know. This wasn't for me. Not right now, at least. May be worth a second look at a later time, but for the time being, I just need to leave this one behind.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

#CBR9 Review #09: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

With the recent release of television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I made a realization: I am a Canadian who has never read anything by Margaret Atwood before. And she a national treasure!!! You’d think I would have at least come across something in my school curriculum, especially given that I even studied English as my minor in university. Really the only prominent Canadian author I had as assigned reading was Alice Munro. That seems… odd to me. But in any case, here we are now, and boy was it a treat to have a forward by Atwood herself regarding this novel in the digital edition I ended up with. Most specifically, her discussion of how the control of women is one of the most important and prominent features in oppressive societies/when one group wants to stifle the other. And what a great time to read this novel, given the current political climate today, and also being at a point in my own life wherein I can recognize and relate to a lot of the gender-issues presented therein: were I younger, a lot more of it may have gone over my head. Because we aren’t supposed to think of this stuff, are we? We are supposed to take what we are given and be grateful, right? Well, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Or maybe… not?? Hmmmm.

But let’s dive in. Spoilers are to follow, both in description of the novel’s events, as well as subsequent discussion:

The Handmaid’s Tale follows the narration of a woman known only to us as Offred, in a not-so-far-off future dystopian society wherein women are divided into categories based on their status, ability to have children, following/faith in the new government, etc. Offred is a handmaid, who is essentially the property of a man we only know as the Commander, and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred’s purpose is to have a child for the family, as fertility rates in this new world have decreased dramatically (due to various toxicities in the world). We follow Offred as she recounts the beginnings of this new world, her life being trained as a handmaid, finding allies amongst her fellow women and the stirrings of a rebellion, and trying to find new connections in this world where her every move is so closely monitored and restricted. Offred used to have a husband and a child, and she desperately clings to memories of them, and of her freedoms that perhaps at the time she took for granted. As time goes on Offred starts taking risks in order to learn information about her family and friends, to survive, and even to just find a connection and intimacy with another person: did you know that we can be starved for affection, human interaction, and even touch? Such rigidity and oppression can rob people of these extremely human facets of life.

It’s a scary world, and leaves us with somewhat of an ambiguous ending, and the scariest part of it all is that it doesn’t read like fantasy at all, not like some of the other popular dystopian novels today: there is no crazy technology or magic, it’s all so real and draws upon such real issues and emotions. An absolute gut-punch, thinking about how this novel relates so well to today, to the issues facing women everywhere in the world. Control of our bodies and our choices to have children? Check. Women’s inability to work and vote in some places? Check. Men thinking they know what’s best for women? Yep. People telling women that we should be grateful for all that we have when we are being mistreated or oppressed in some way, because others out there have it worse? Got that here too. Oh, but we shouldn’t complain about anything, should we? Because everything is a product of the choices we have made in our lives, right?

Speaking of which, that is just one of the important and prominent themes to be found in this novel: the subject of blaming the victim/oppressed for the position that they are in. We see this first and foremost with the character of Janine, another handmaid during her training, being told she is a disgusting woman who is at fault for everything that happened to her during her life. How often do we see the first line of defense in assault cases being to discredit the victim by asking what they were wearing, were they drinking, etc etc? Mhm.

We also see another instance of the oppressed being told it is their own fault/choice to be in the position they are in through Offred, saying that the sex she has with the Commander is not rape, as she chose this position as a handmaid. But is that really true? Her choice was to do this or to clean up toxic wastes and essentially die within a few years? I have heard too many stories of women who didn’t really want to have sex but felt pressured to, and so they said yes, when really they wanted to say no. And then they blame themselves for feeling confused or not right afterwards, because they said yes, right? Even though they felt like they had to for whatever reason. But if there is pressure or an ultimatum, etc, is that yes really valid?

Related to this idea of Offred making choices as available to her in her state of oppression, we see the subject of what people are willing to put up with or put themselves through in order to survive. Offred makes the choice to be a handmaiden rather than go to the “colonies”. She makes the choice to be a vessel for another, while others would see this position as degrading. We also see women choosing to be “jezebels” or sterilized prostitutes for the high-status men, including Offred’s best friend, Moira, who is a lesbian woman: she chooses to allow her body to be used by men, just so she can stay alive and not go to the colonies. Other people would prefer death. Everyone defines rock bottom differently, and everyone is willing to accept different levels of fate in order to keep living.

And then there are those women who choose to go against their fellow women: those women who scapegoat in order to keep their positions and possibly get ahead. Also those women who choose the position of “Aunts”, which means that they have some power and control over the other women, teaching them how to act according to the new rules of society and punishing those who don’t. I feel as if in our world, women are so often pit against each other, whether for the purpose of male attention, status, or power. Betrayal can happen for any of these reasons, and when the stakes are so high in the world of this novel, that betrayal can seem all the more stinging. Because of this idea that anyone can give you away or turn against you just for their own survival, there is a loneliness found in novel (as in life) as women are constantly considered rivals. Offred has difficulty connecting to other women, and yet so much strength can also be found in the coalition of women: it is a powerful thing, and it feels to me that women are made to fight amongst themselves in order to stay where they are and not push ahead. The reason we are where we are today is because women banded together to fight for our rights. Yet even then, these women were scorned for being too loud, too pushy, not “real” women who followed all the prescribed gender roles. Why are they not happy with what they have? (We see that sentiment presented in The Handmaid’s Tale as well, how lucky the handmaids are to live where they are with all the privileges they have, how could they ask for anything more?). This is why I love the movement I see in young girls today, trying to be supportive of one another: we need to stand together in order to move ahead.

But speaking of moving ahead, I think I will now speak to the ending of the novel. I got a little confused regarding the extra historical notes and whether this was really a part of the story as my e-reader was being odd and sort of split up the sections in an weird way?? The core story of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an ambiguous fashion, and it’s an absolute gut-punch: what happened to Offred after the story? Was she on her way to freedom or something worse? That uncertainty is so terrifying and is such a great ending. The whole story is also presented in such a beautiful and intimate way, as though Offred is recording her story just for the sake of recording it, and we just happen to be the one who is being shared with. Kind of like how Valerie writes her story in V for Vendetta, unsure if anyone will read it, but hopeful that one day someone will learn all that she has been through. This makes the whole thing feel very personal in a way, and stopping with Offred’s uncertain ending makes the whole thing even more gut-wrenching as she is cut off and you can’t be clear what this means for the women who just shared her whole life with you. You really could just stop there. But then there were the historical notes, presented as a part of a lecture on Offred’s story at a later date, after being found recorded on a number of tapes years later.

These notes sort of take away from the uncertainty of the ending in some ways, as we can deduce that Offred was found or taken to some kind of underground safe-haven and therefore able to recount her story. It also takes away from the intimate feeling gained from reading her story: now I know that I am not the recipient of her personal story as chosen by fate, but that everyone has now heard it and scrutinized it. But there is something to be said for having this later discussion/talk regarding her tapes: that is, we are able to see reflected the way in which people view history, saying “how could people let this happen?”, all while ignoring how their own world is evolving and could very well do the same thing again. We get to see people doubting her story as if it is just some kind of hoax or way to present the old government in a particular way. But I think of all the other personal documents we have found over time and made stories of/used as actual pieces of history (most iconic of all, the diary of Anne Frank), and wonder if we scrutinized these in the same manner, questions if it was even real at all. Such is nature, isn’t it, to always question the validity of what someone is saying? Particularly when it comes to not wanting to believe something that might confirm our own faults and misdoings. Ultimately, I’m a bit conflicted about the historical notes at the end of the book.

I do wonder, however, what a male’s perspective might be on this book? I say this because I know plenty of women who have read it over the years, but cannot personally think of single man who has. What would they think of Offred’s life and thoughts regarding her situation? I cannot help but think of that Pajiba post a while back regarding Things Men Don’t Realize Women Fear and how maybe some of the little intricacies might go over a few heads, while other parts would stand out more that didn’t for me? I mean, we all read things from our own personal viewpoints and places in life, so I feel like there might be some differences to be found. I think of this specifically because of the parts of the book wherein the Commander is taking Offred out for the night, and to him it almost seems like a game, but to her, she is risking her life. Or how even Offred’s husband responded to her not being about to work at first, versus her own reaction. There are some things that men just… don’t get. Because they haven’t experienced life from a female perspective. (Yes yes, not all men fall into that generalized category, but those aren’t the men I’m talking about here, is it? I’m talking about the ones that DON’T GET IT, which unfortunately is far too many).

All in all, I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be phenomenal. At first I was worried that maybe it had been hyped up too much and I would be disappointed (as has happened to me with a lot of books, movies, etc) or that given how I’ve heard a lot of people call it a “classic” the language and writing might be hard to get into (once again, something that has happened to me quite a few times with other books) but ultimately I loved it, given everything that it stirred in my brain: it made me think of a lot of different issues present in the world today, all of which are important. As a novel, it is both entertaining but also profound: the odd simple line here or there just jumped out and struck me. I would love to revisit this again in the future, to see if as I grow older I feel things differently about it, or even begin to notice different things that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time through.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#CBR9 Review #08: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I went into this book without a single piece of information regarding what it was about: it was an impulse digital rental based on the fact that I was preeeeeetty sure I had heard the name of the novel before (or maybe because of the movie which I just realized also exists??). And that's it. Yet, despite no expectations, it was still totally not what I expected, in terms of subject matter, writing style, etc. How is that possible? In any case, I found myself struggling to begin reading this one, but then things got easier as it all started rolling along. I wouldn't say I loved it, but it's not bad. Let's dive in:

The Remains of the Day follows a butler in a decent sized English house named Stevens, as he makes his way through the countryside on a little holiday, in an attempt to gain some more help from the household in the form of an old housekeeper, Miss Kenton. The two had previously worked together under the employment of one Lord Darlington, who had been host to many English aristocrats as well as German officers, etc during the time of WWII. As Stevens makes his way to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), we see many flashbacks of Lord Darlington, and different incidents between Miss Kenton and Stevens during their time together. Through these tales, we see many themes emerge such as that of dignity, what makes a great butler, poise, how some people never show their true feelings, and how many feel that they are not qualified to have opinions on matters that they really should as it affects them greatly. All in all, there is a lot going on in terms of relationship politics as well as the politics of the time.

But speaking of time, something I had difficulty with in this book was really determining what time-period certain events were, how old characters were at any given point in the story, etc etc. Perhaps this is because I was not paying close enough attention at times? Stevens would go on lengthy tangents all over the place bringing up various people and events that would ultimately unwind back to the present day, but there was a bit of jumping around to follow that I got lost in at one point during reading.

Anyhow, at it's core, The Remains of the Day centers on a theme of looking back, and how events of the past has led us to where we are. Miss Kenton and Stevens clearly have affection for one another (got those Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey vibes, y'all), but there is a sense that opportunities were missed, and perhaps had certain moments gone a different way, things could have ended up far differently than they did. Isn't that just the way lots of people go through life? Thinking about what could have been and so holding on to the past, when the future still lays ahead of them? Because of this central theme, the end of the novel does hold both a bit of a melancholic but also hopeful tone. It's quite subtle and beautiful, and yet sometimes these subtleties throughout the novel were hard to pick up on for me, until really the very end.

I think the difficulties I had were partially to do with Kazuo Ishiguro's writing style being a bit different than what I'm used to: I almost backed out of this one early on as the writing is very particular to convey the specific manner of Stevens, which is indeed very stiff and proper at all times. Now, this is great in conveying what the character is like, but this stiffness does come off as a bit closed-off and too professional at times (despite being written in a personal journal or something of the like). This is why sometimes visual mediums are great for this kind of thing, as you can see posturing, body language, sly glances, etc (one of the reasons why I adore the 2006 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as it really helped me get into the relationships and characters a bit more than when I had previously read the novel). Though, perhaps this is more of a personal issue, in that I just needed to get used to the writing and therefore it was a bit harder to pick up on it's subtleties than say, with a manner I am more familiar with.

All in all, I would say that this novel didn't have a strong start for me, as I struggled a bit to get into it, but the ending was quite nice and drew on more emotions and connected with me more than the rest of the novel did. There wasn't really a big climactic moment, so the whole thing kind of passed along at one pace with a pretty constant mood, and some distinction or variety there may have been nice for the pace and overall experience of the novel. That being said, it is a decent read, and does hit on some feelings that I think a lot of people experience in our world, more or less in terms of regret from the past, and the inability to get past this to work on the future. I mean, I even experience this from time to time and I am only in my twenties! So for all that, The Remains of the Day is a solid middle-ground read for me.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]