Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

First off, I think I need to come clean and just own that I have a total girl crush on Margaret Atwood after reading only two of her novels. While the Handmaid’s Tale kind of rocked my world, made my heart pound and caused a few tears to be shed (ok, more than a few…) as I pondered the very real parallels with today’s current political crusading, Alias Grace was a story unto itself and utterly cemented my girl crush for the eloquent and indomitable Margaret Atwood. Her stories, so far, have been captivating and beautifully written.

I first heard of Alias Grace by stumbling across the Netflix original series. Seeing not only that it was based on a novel by a familiar author but that the plot seemed less likely to make me sob every episode (I still haven’t been able to finish the Hulu series based on the Handmaid’s tale; too close to home!) I was sucked into Grace’s story and immediately binged-watched 3 episodes in a row. It was only the late hour of 11pm and my usual 5am wake-up alarm that forced me to curtail my viewing pleasure…silly adulting getting in the way of my Netflix.

The story that is continually spun deeper and deeper with each episode is enhanced by a well-chosen cast of actresses and actors and one can’t help but feel transported right into the midst of the mystery being explored. Grace Marks is a convicted murderess who cannot remember what happened the day of the murders and in the past, has exhibited signs of hysteria and possibly insanity. A committee of well-intended Methodist Church members have been working tirelessly to prove Grace’s innocence and garner a pardon from the courts. To this end, they enlist the services of Dr. Jordon, a young doctor in the burgeoning field of psychiatry, to interview Grace and determine whether or not she indeed suffers from hysteria, in the hopes that his report may help sway a judge to pardon Grace.

Day after day, Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, asking her to start at the beginning of her life. The tale she relates, in vivid detail, encompasses such a span of human experience. Grief, joy, sorrow, fear, friendship and loss. Grace’s family immigrated to Canada from Ireland and the description seemed reminiscent of tales told by Irish families who immigrated on the “coffin ships” during the Great Irish famine. Grace’s mother dies during the voyage and once the family reaches Canada, Grace is left to care for her younger siblings while her father spends all their money drinking, until the day he throws her out of the house to find work.

Grace ends up employed as a serving girl in a wealthy house and is befriended by the vivacious Mary Whitney. Through an all-too-common situation, Mary Whitney ends up pregnant by the son of the household owners and dies in the evening after enduring an abortion. Grace is troubled by the loss of her friend and when a better-paying opportunity is offered to her, she jumps at the chance to leave the house where some of the best memories of her young life are entwined with the tragedy of Mary’s death.

The decision to accept this new position is where the real story starts. The trifecta of tension between Grace’s new master, Mr. Kinnear, the housekeeper (or is she?) Nancy Montgomery and the stablehand James McDermott eventually leads to the pivotal mystery of the series/novel. McDermott and Grace are arrested for the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery and McDermott claims all the way to the hanging scaffold that Grace was the mastermind behind the murders and the one who convinced him to carry them out. But did Grace knowingly commit the murders? Is her amnesia real or only a convenient defense against a murder charge?

As Grace relates more and more of her memories from before and after the events, I couldn’t help but wonder if she is guilty? I swayed on this decision many a time, sometimes because I didn’t want her to be guilty or maybe she was justifiably guilty, such as the actions leading to the murders were in self-defense? By the end of the series, I don’t know that I really cared if she was guilty or innocent, I just WANTED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!!! However, similar to the ending of Handmaid’s Tale, you are left to draw your own conclusions as to what happens during the murders and if Grace, herself, had a knowing hand in the acts.

I decided to read the book version after finishing the TV series as I was curious to see if the ending in the book would give a bit more depth to the story. As much as I loved the Netflix series, the ending felt somewhat abrupt. However, the novel ends in much the same manner (and in some ways, the minor changes between the novel and the series adaptation I actually like better in the series but this may simply be due to seeing this before reading the book) but overall, this is one of the better book-to-screen adaptations I have encountered.

Not convinced yet that you want to watch the TV series or read the book? Well, to further pique your interest, this novel fictionalizes the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace Marks and James McDermott were indeed the servants arrested and convicted for the murders, with James sentenced to death and Grace to life in prison. Grace was spared the death sentence due to being only 16 at the time of the murders. And, *spoiler alert* after Grace’s pardon and release from prison, not much is known of her life. As Margaret Atwood would say “the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma.”

 

** Disclosure: Book links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and decided to purchase one of the books.**

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel- by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel- by George Saunders

I picked up Lincoln in the Bardo after my mom mentioned her book club was going to be reading it as part of their rotation. I was intrigued by the concept of the bardo, which is a Tibetan term for the Buddhist “intermediate state” between death and rebirth when the soul is not connected to a body. As used in this novel, the idea is that everyone spends some time in the bardo after they die but some end up lingering for a very long time because they either choose to remain in this in-between state out of fear of what comes next or are perhaps unable to make the transition. Children, especially, are not meant to linger in the bardo after they die.

The story revolves around the events leading up to and after the death of President Lincoln’s son, Willie. Willie doesn’t realize that he has passed away and instead vehemently believes that he need only wait for his father to come back for him and so he ends up lingering in the bardo. During his time there, the reader is introduced to numerous other characters, who are also in the bardro, and a few key characters who try and convince Willie that he is indeed dead and needs to pass on from this crypt where he was interred. Willie’s decision to linger is not helped by the returning presence of his grieving father, who seeks to mourn the loss of his son in private in the crypt.

The style of this novel is unlike anything I have read to-date. Rather than being the standard text-filled pages, Saunders uses snippets of historical documents to portray the events of Willie’s illness and death, the grief of the Lincolns’ after he passes and the challenges already facing the President given the Civil War is a year old. While there are a few fictional historical snippets to move the plot, Saunders did conduct extensive research on Lincoln’s life during this time frame. Many of those chapters in the book transport the reader and create the sense that one is living in that time and experiencing the event as if reading the newspapers of yore.

The scenes that take place in the bardo are told from various 1st person views by the multitude of characters existing in the bardo. At first, I had to adjust my mind to reading what felt like pages of pure conversation and lightning-fast transitions between characters but soon the pages flew by as I was captivated by the storyline. Many times, I found that I had to put the book down in order to process the storyline a bit and to have a breather from the rollicking pace and raw nature of some of the characters. 368 pages never felt so fast!

I believe that this novel can have many interpretations. To me, it is really about grief and the pain felt by the living who have lost those they love, the passing of the soul after death, fear of the unknown, faith (or lack thereof) and rebirth. What I appreciate most about this novel is not only the hard work the author put in to create an authentic historical feel to the setting and the characters but that the novel leaves so much open to interpretation. Saunders does not end the story by telling a morality tale of what one should believe happens after death but rather creates an interesting allegory based on a true historical event to help readers ponder these inevitable questions. Worth a read on your own or a great choice for a lively book club session.

PS: 15 books to go on my 21 Books to Read before 35….I’m about midway through “The World According to Garp” and can’t wait to write my review for that novel! A little over 2 months left to complete this challenge so I will be trying to limit distractions caused by all the other lovely titles on my “to read” shelf….

 

** Disclosure: Book links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and decided to purchase one of the books.**

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Where did the time go?

Where did the time go?

Holy Moly, how is it 2018? One of these days, I will figure out how to make this whole blogging thing a regular part of life but I admit that full-time work, full-time graduate school and general adulting has left me exhausted. However, being now officially done with my MBA (woohoo) I can get back to enjoying the subtle niceties of life….aka copious amounts of reading. I’m not sure I even want to know what the page count from between Christmas and New Year’s is as I felt like I was searching for a new book almost every day.

I’m pleased to say that I’m back on the book challenge bandwagon and managed to burn my way through both Bossypants by Tina Fey** and I feel bad about my neck by Nora Ephron. 2 more down and yeah, still several to go. But hey, I have, like 3 months until I’m 35 and have to hang my head in shame for failing this noblest of endeavors.

I enjoyed reading Bossypants immensely. The clever witticisms that I would expect of Tina Fey are sprinkled throughout the memoir along with advice that is darn good regardless of whether or not you happen to possess a pair of boobs. A few key gems:

  • “In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.”
  • “Do your thing and don’t care if they like it.”
  • “It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”
  • “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”

And in a beautiful response to scathing fan letter:

“To say I’m an overrated troll, when you have never even seen me guard a bridge, is patently unfair.”

I appreciated the no-nonsense manner in which the book conveyed the trials and tribulations of her youth, complete with awkward adolescent years, and the sharing of potential closet skeletons that frankly we all have from our youth but not all are courageous enough to own. As a woman, who sometimes laments being female everytime I have to restock my supply of feminine hygiene products for the next go-around of my body punishing me for not being pregnant (this comic illustrates the relationship with my uterus perfectly), I was more amused by Tina’s rambling regarding the fact that she didn’t realize her period would involve blood since TV commercials always showing a bright blue liquid. Whether this is actually true or merely an amusing anecdotal story, I can identify with the confusion and wonder about the marketing mind that decided we mustn’t make the masses squeamish with the sight of a little blood.

Musings on the joys reproductive cycles and marketing tactics aside, reading this book made me want to hug Tina Fey until she got a restraining order against me or (instead) figure out how to bottle that indomitable spirit and sell it for tons of money on Amazon. Seriously, read this book and decide how to channel your inner Tina Fey. With feminist hat firmly affixed, I’ll venture to say that we need more Tina Fey’s in the world.

Now, Nora Ephran’s book…well, I just don’t know what to make of it. I’m not sure if I feel this way because I read it much too soon after the rollicking ride of Tina’s Fey’s life and feminist views and so, by comparison, there was a missing joie de vivre element but this book simply did not resonate with me. Many chapter openings pulled me in but then there were abrupt endings or a lack of final wisdom conveyed. Sure, I also don’t understand obsessing about one’s purse or paying hundreds of dollars for a glorified rucksack where one will inevitably store dust mites, forgotten scraps of paper and even a black hole portal but then there was no real sense of closure to the chapter. When I finally read the last page and gently closed the back cover, I sat staring at the book in befuddlement. Where was the grandiose message of sage wisdom? Where was my adult empowerment that you know what, everything is going to be ok? While there were a few gems, overall I am still pondering why this book was written. Perhaps, as I age, potentially ungracefully, Nora’s writing and the message will resonate with me more but for now, someone please let me know if I merely missed the cereal box decoder that was necessary to unlocking the hidden message?

Happy 2018 all! Soon to come, thoughts on Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

** Disclosure: Book links in this post are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and decided to purchase one of the books.**

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Book Challenge Take 2

Book Challenge Take 2

I know I said that I wouldn’t try another book challenge when I re-launched this blog in January but now find myself drawn to the idea of a book challenge….oh fickle Pinterest, why do you send so many through my feed?

I came across one this past Friday from Bustle.com-21 books every woman should read by 35– and was immediately drawn in. Why, I’ll be 35 in a little over a year! And shiny! What a fun mix of books. Fiction, non-fiction, old classics, new classics, books I probably should have read by now and others that I’m excited to read because they are outside of my normal genres, et cetera.

I’m not sure if I am simply experiencing some sort of weird mid-30’s crisis but for whatever reason, I feel like 35 is going to “a year” and that I need to accomplish something meaningful. A book challenge (plus finishing my MBA if all goes on schedule) seems like a good lead-in but part of me still wants to do something epic like hike Mt. Kilimanjaro with a bunch of other bad-ass (or crazy depending on how you want to look at it) women in 2018. Or maybe I’ll go the less expensive route and finally get around to training for a marathon….

Potential existential crisis aside, another reason I like this particular challenge is that I’m already off to a great start and have read two of the books on the list. I’m not enough of a purist (aka: lazy) to re-read those books simply for the sake of the challenge, even though the book were great reads and one, Lean In, is still a topic of conversation at my work, but hey! look at that? Only 19 more books to go…I’ve so got this.

If I can figure out how to embed a countdown timer in WordPress, or even if I can’t, head over to the fancy new page devoted to this challenge and help keep me accountable to finishing this one! And be on the lookout for some future book reviews from titles off the list.

 

PS: In the spirit of more book list (Thank you, Pinterest) here are a few other links that may be of interest. Happy Reading!

The Book Nerd’s Guide to Surviving a Dystopia

11 Books to Read if you Love “The Handmaid’s Tale”

20 Life-Changing Nonfiction Books That You Can Finish In A Day

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

“Freedom, like everything else, is relative.” 

I’m sorry to say that I have never read this novel by Margaret Atwood prior to now. Perhaps it was fortuitous that I had seen ads for the TV series adaptation on Hulu and an otherwise dry spell of books led me to select this as my next free Kindle title. Fortuitous and yet heart-wrenching as the chilling similarities between the story the author pens and the calamitous political storm our nation faces today are brought side-by-side.

The Handmaid’s tale is told from the point of view of a woman named Offred, who had another name prior to the collapse of society in America. Offred is what is known as a Handmaid – a woman that is a sanctioned mistress.  Her entire existence is based solely on her ability to have children by the man she is leased out to- generally a high-ranking military or political figure- and she goes to whichever home she is ordered to. Failure to produce a living, breathing normal child after three attempts means a fate worse than death. And even if a Handmaid has a healthy child, she is sent quickly after giving birth to the next man to produce another child.

As Offred narrates her current existence and shares flashbacks of the time “before,” the novel dances between despair and hope. Reading this today, 30+ years after it was first published, I am chilled less by the story that came after the fall of the government and more by the events of how it all took place.

In the beginning, a staged attack kills the President and most of Congress. An extreme Christian movement launches a revolution, suspends the Constitution and begins to take away women’s rights under the pretext of restoring order. Offred arrives to work one normal day only to be let go because it was now a law that women were not allowed to work….or have their own bank account…or vote. Women were further stripped of their rights and dehumanized as it became illegal for them to even read printed words amongst other actions.

Atwood describes the reaction of society to this appalling movement as well…almost nonexistent:

” There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped.”

Normally, I enjoy books with not necessarily happy endings but closure and the Handmaid’s tale does have closure in a sense. The reader is left knowing that Offred makes it somewhere safe to record her tale but not where or how she spent the remainder of her days. While I prefer to be optimistic when faced with the open-ended fate of Offred, this novel has left me a bit haunted. It is raw, dark and I feel almost paralyzed due to the parallels I can see in the political dictatorship that is unfolding every day and the society that lead to and was present in Offred’s tale.

Who wants to believe, that as a society, we could ever be so blind or passively willing to let our rights be taken away? But isn’t that what is happening to many? Isn’t that what has happened in other countries in a not-so-distant past? Aren’t we witnessing the rise of a power that seems to embrace and ignore that their version of “better never means better for everyone…it always means worse for some?”

I’m not sure what the future will hold or that posting this silly blog will have any impact. I am still searching for the inner political firebrand that hides inside me and letting her voice rage. But I have to remind myself that some action is better than no action; not everyone’s rise against this tide will look the same but the collection of our will and the desire to not stand by silent in these ignoble times is what is required of us. If we believe in the rights of others, and that we live in a country meant for a better destiny than the one currently being crafted, the time for silence is over.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Starting Over

Starting Over

Once again, I find myself on the cusp of a new year full of excitement, vigor, and ambition. Oh the ambition! How many resolutions should I set (and likely fail at because let’s be honest here, I don’t have the best track record with these) for this year? Should I attempt another book challenge? Run a marathon? Bake my way through the Bread Baker’s Apprentice and eat all the deliciousness?

While all of the above sound oh-so-tempting, I am going to try and minimize my focus this year. Next Monday starts another term of graduate school and with several more terms on the horizon, this is probably not the best time to challenge myself to read the complete works of Shakespeare (yes, I did seriously consider this) or take up a time-heavy exercise regime. However, I am challenging myself to bring focus to areas of my life the have either been neglected these past few months or that are important to stay on the priority list. While exercise and school are staying on the top of the list, I am also going to try really, really hard to plan in time for book blogging.

While on break from both school and work (yay!) between Christmas and New Year’s, I admit that I read books like a man dying of thirst. I was aided in this by t a new Kindle Voyage as a Xmas gift from my wonderful husband, who had decided it was too painful watching me read books on my tiny iphone 5. 🙂  I signed back up for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited so between that and my local library, I enjoyed an endless stream of new books. This past week at work, I was asked by a co-worker to name which book had been the most interesting, a near-impossible task for a book lover such as myself! However, I did eventually settle on the Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson. I was inspired to read this non-fiction book after listening to the author’s Ted Talk which was a quick overview of the book’s plot. Highly entertaining to both watch and read. Some of you may recognize the name or at least might as Jon Ronson wrote the book “The Men Who Stare at Goats” which the Geroge Clooney movie of the same title was based on.

All in all, I think my total book count for the 10-day break was roughly 7 books. If you are curious, I have listed the titles below. I often take for granted the speed at which I read, so I tried to be modest and not overly-embarrassed in admitting this number and hearing gasps of surprise from people. I really think my motto for 2017 needs to be something along the lines of “That’s what I do- I drink and I know things…cause I read a lot” to steal and modify a Tyrion Lannister quote. Side note: I would love to have this coffee mug, but I think my work establishment might frown on it or think I’m a lush who needs an intervention since I tend to mention beer, wine, scotch etc, being a means to make meetings more pleasant… Continue reading “Starting Over”

The Darkest Minds…

The Darkest Minds…

The first book in a YA trilogy of the same name, The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken was a good read. While I wasn’t as pulled into the plot and the character dynamics as with The Hunger Games, by the end I did close the back cover with a desire to read the next book and a slight sigh of discontentment that my romantic heart was denied fulfillment in the last few pages.

The Darkest Minds follows the story of Ruby, a 16 year old girl who has been in a “rehabilitation camp” since the age of 10. She is one of the unlucky (or lucky depending how you want to look at it) kids who survived a disease that swept the United States killing off almost all the children almost as quickly as the first symptom presented itself. The children who did survive were forever changed and found themselves with unusual powers, and due to the fear that these powers wrought in the government, they were rounded up and sent to various camps. The public was told it was for rehabilitation and so a cure could be found, but the truth was the camps were for experimentation and containment only.

When Ruby is sent to Thurmond, the first camp, with many other children, all are screened for their “power level” and categorized into sub-groups: Greens are the weakest but have superhuman brains with photographic memory; Blues are telekinetic; Yellows can manipulate electricity and cause any electronic item to turn off, on or explode; Oranges have telepathy and can read minds, place or remove memories along with manipulating thoughts; Reds are thought to have powers of psychokinesis but this first novel only hints at that.

Ruby is an Orange (without knowing what that really means in the beginning) but as she is being sorted, she instinctively tries to protect herself and convinces her tester that she is a Green. She spends her 6 years at Thurmond hiding her true abilities and living behind a mental wall of fear. Inevitably, it’s discovered that she has powers far beyond any “Green” and a Doctor acting as an undercover agent for a group called the Children’s League smuggles her and another Orange out of the camp.Wary at what the future holds, Ruby hopes that she has finally found someone and somewhere to belong.

Sadly for Ruby, the Children’s Leagues main motivation in breaking her out was to exploit her abilities in their own political war. When Ruby realizes that the partner of the Doctor who got her out of Thurmond executed the children he was supposed to save from another camp, Ruby makes a run for it before he can do the same to her. As she is fleeing, she encounters another group of children who escaped their camp- Liam (the leader), “Chubs” (the brilliant mind) and Zu (little girl with crazy Yellow powers who wont talk), and joins up with them to escape the League agents.

Liam, Chubs and Zu are searching for a place called East River where rumors say there is a safe haven camp for kids with power and a leader named the Slip Kid who is able to connect with your relatives anywhere in the area or get you to a safe home elsewhere. As Ruby works to both hide her secret of being an Orange and yet stay with the group, Liam begins to fall in love with her… when they do finally discover the secret location of East River, not everything there turns out to be the perfect Utopian they were hoping for…

To reiterate the sentiment that I opened this post with, overall I enjoyed this novel and plan to eventually read the remaining books (oh, where will I find the time?!). However, I think what kept this book from being categorized as great for me is that there was too much repetition with the plot. OK, I get that Ruby and the others are traveling to some unknown, remote location but there seems to be redundant situations that didn’t necessarily advance the character’s development or interactions with each other. I mean, how many times do I have to read that they dodge almost being captured by various agents of the League, bounty hunters or other children gangs? Maybe the author was trying to hit a certain number of pages or perhaps she felt that each situation of danger really did help Ruby bond with the others in the little tribe but I would have been satisfied if the book had been shorter and the story-line condensed. (Side rant- Stephanie Meyers’ The Host has to be the worst offender ever in the category of endless pages of wandering that are both unnecessary and noncontributing to forward movement in the plot. Seriously….like at least 100+ pages that could have been cut from that book and you’d never miss them. Ok, end side rant.)

My other beef is the ending and I say that only because I didn’t get the hopeless romantic ending I wanted. Wasn’t really expecting it to happen with this being book one of a trilogy but if things don’t play out with love happiness for Ruby  in the end, I may be scarred for life. Or just reluctant to read other works by this author. Reading is my happy place so don’t take away my perfect love endings darn it!

 


 

The trilogy continues with Never Fade and ends with In the Afterlight. Find more info on the author’s website here. There are rumors that The Darkest Minds is slated for movie production but per the author’s website, while there is a screen writer working on the novel adaptation, there are no actors or directors currently attached to this project. Stay tuned!

Photo is courtesy of Pixabay.