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

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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

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.”

Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Oh my!

Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy is a pleasant, delightful piece of historical murder mystery fiction. This is the second book by the author and having not read the first one, my introduction to both the author and the main character Mary Handley. Now, I don’t tend to read a lot of murder mystery and if I do, I would argue that they fall more on the thriller/suspense side but I love well written, accurate historical fiction. Heck, half of the random facts filed away somewhere in the vast reaches of my brain are from historical fiction novels.

The novel is set in Brooklyn during the year 1890. Mary Handley, the daughter of a butcher, is an young, intelligent, (unofficial) consulting detective attempting to establish herself as a professional. In the first novel, she successfully helps the Brooklyn police close a tricky murder case and now finds herself at loose ends waiting for another potential case. As luck would have it, she is hired by a woman to investigate the 20 year old death of the woman’s uncle where there is suspicion of foul play.

With this review, I don’t want to dive too deep into the plot and provide spoilers but I will say that the twist and turns kept on coming. Mary’s investigation into the uncle’s death uncovers a buried coffin full of stone and that the uncle apparently died not once but twice eight years apart and in two different locations! Other murders, seemingly unconnected to Mary’s investigation, being to occur and the deeper Mary dives into this case, the more she realizes that she is playing fire with Brooklyn’s snobbish elite and the underworld social climbers that pull the strings. As if Mary doesn’t have enough on her plate with missing bodies and cold leads, her brother is arrested for the murder of his fiance (a close friend of Mary’s), and she falls in love with a Vanderbilt and becomes engaged.

I admit to skepticism as to the validity of some facts in this novel. Being somewhat scarred by Hollywood’s inability to keep historically accurate facts in the forefront of their movies, I felt it prudent to keep a running list of things to cross check as this novel seemed chock full of potentially disappointing untrue facts. So with that, I set out to confirm if the below list could be realistic for a person in Brooklyn in the 1890’s to know about or to be a current practice for the era:

  • Embalming still a current practice?
  • Jujitsu?
  • French form of kickboxing called Savate
  • Would a women have a boyfriend

Good ol’ Google did surprisingly confirm these facts: Embalming became popular in the U.S. during the civil war; in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s, the U.S. became fascinated with Japanese culture especially martial arts and so it’s very likely that Mary could have been introduced and trained in jujitsu and there were even debates in England as to whether a boxer could be defeated by a trained martial artist (see website here); while I couldn’t find any proof that Savate was present in the U.S. in the 1890’s (albeit after only a brief internet search), given the popularity it had in Europe during that same time period, I don’t think it’s beyond the scope of historical accuracy that Mary wouldn’t have known and/or been trained in Savate, especially as it was lauded as a self-defense art; and lastly, yes, it is conceivable that a women in or around the 1890’s could indeed have had a boyfriend (linguist history lesson here) and referred to said boyfriend in social conversation.

I can’t remember the last time a novel challenged me to question history but I am pleased that the author obviously did his homework and must have complied some exhaustive research in the writing of Mary’s second adventure. This author’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by an interview he had with a fellow wordpress blogger and also that he put a lot of effort into ensuring the characters spoke accurately for that time frame. I am  still unconvinced on this point but am going to trust in the author on this one. Head over to Book Club Mom to read the interview.

All in all, I enjoyed Brooklyn on Fire. Mary Handley is not a perfect person (a bit prejudice against the rich and privilege) but she is a witty, strong woman living by her own terms and is entirely identifiable with in this current day and age and I look forward to reading more of her adventures. I will give one spoiler alert though- my hopelessly romantic soul is sad her engagement ended. Love is a fickle thing.


 

Brooklyn on Fire is available Jan. 19th, 2016. Find more information here and check out Lawrence H. Levy’s website here.

**I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. My first pre-release book ever! Click the link above for more information.

 

Fingersmith- Cleverly Dickens-esque or sadly underwhelming?

The wonderful ladies of my book club and I decided to venture down a new literary path with a novel that was described as being “a hypnotic suspense novel…of Dickensian leitmotifs” and an engrossing tale of lesbian fiction set in the Victorian era. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is the story of an orphan named Sue who lives in gloomy, dirty London, circa 1862. Her adoptive “mother” is a thief and baby seller (yes, she literally runs an orphan baby mill in her house like a modern person would have a puppy mill) and everyone else in the “family” are also thieves. Sue’s life is destined for nothing until a handsome con man called Gentleman proposes that Sue help him in a scheme to trick a young, wealthy woman out of her fortune. All Sue needs to do is play lady’s maid to this woman, help Gentleman to marry her and then commit her to a madhouse so he can claim her fortune for himself and give Sue a portion. Sue agrees to this plan and off she to goes to the English countryside.

Introduce Maud Lilly to the novel, the above aforementioned wealthy, young woman about to be duped into marriage. She lives a secluded life with her Uncle who is obsessed with writing a “dictionary” and is forced to wear gloves at all times to protect the precious books in the Uncle’s library. Maud is presented to the reader as being timid, delicate and in love with Gentleman, who has been posing as an art instructor to Miss Lilly. As Sue interacts with Maud in her role of lady’s maid and attempts to do her part to encourage Maud to elope with Gentleman, she begins to establish a friendship with Maud beyond that of lady and servant and eventually admits to herself that she has fallen in love with Maud. This causes her to start questioning her role in Gentleman’s scheme but in the end, she assists Maud in her elopement, is present when Maud and Gentleman marry and make the journey to the madhouse to have Maud unknowingly committed.

At this point in the novel, the conclusion of part one comes with a very Dickens-esque twist and the novel continues with Maud as the narrator. For all that I struggled to find a rhythm to this novel and did not devour it with my usually voracious appetite for an engagingly written tale, there were some plot twists and points that made this novel an interesting read:

1) At the end of part one, Sue ends up being the one committed to the madhouse under the name Mrs. Rivers

2) We learn that Maud was aware of the scheme to marry her to Gentleman and have her committed the entire time but her own deal with Gentleman was to have the innocent maid he would bring back with him from London committed in her place so she would be free of her Uncle.

3) Part two is told from Maud’s point of view and we learn that she was born in the same madhouse that Sue is committed to and her mother died there.

4) The “dictionary” her uncle is working on is actually a reference book for all known literary pornography of that time and she is forced to read passages from books of this nature to gentleman guest who have a similar interest in that genre

5) Maud also falls in love with Sue but still goes through with the plan to have Sue committed in her place so she can be free of her Uncle.

Part two ends with Gentleman taking Maud back to London and forcing her to stay with Mrs S., Sue’s adoptive mother. It is at this time that we learn Mrs. S. was the true mastermind of this plan for over 17 years. There is a convoluted storyline where we learn that Sue is really Maud and Maud is Sue meaning that Sue’s real mother was a wealthy lady that had escaped her abusive father and brother  and gave birth at Mrs. S. place. Her family found her and she begged Mrs. S to keep her baby safe with the promise that her daughter and the switched baby would each split her fortune on their 18th birthdays. Mrs. S agrees and gives one of the orphan babies, Maud, to the father and brother who take her and her mother to the madhouse where she is raised by the nurses until her Uncle claims her at a later time. Maud then turns out to be Mrs. S. child and not an orphan child at random. Mrs. S wanted to have Maud brought home so she could see her again and also claim all of the fortune that had been promised by Sue’s mother, the wealthy lady.

Still following? Congrats, because this piece of the novel was an absolutely bear to get through! Felt like I needed to draw it out with crayon so I didn’t lose who was who. The quick summation for the rest of the novel is that Sue manages to escape the madhouse, makes her way to London, perceives that Maud has replaced her in Mrs. S. life, attempts to exact revenge, learns the awful truth about plot and her birth, Gentleman is killed, Mrs. S. is hanged for the crime, Maud disappears, Sue comes into her fortune, returns to the country house, finds Maud living there and supporting herself by writing her own literary erotica and they insipidly declare their feelings for each other.

For a novel that is toted as pushing lesbian fiction to be more mainstream, I found this part of the book to be very lacking in development and not as central to the overall story line as I had thought it would be. My book club members and I picked this novel as we were intrigued by how a suspense novel involving a lesbian couple set in an era where relationships of that nature were kept in secret could be presented and were drawn in by the multitude of praise given to this title. I can praise the author’s historical accurate and chilling description of Sue’s time in the madhouse, but overall, I was underwhelmed by a book that I had high hopes for and that just sucks. At our book club discussion, my friends and I had too many questions that we would love to pose to the author: Why was the literary pornography piece included and written about so much? It didn’t seem to explain anything other than her husband’s depravity and then later give Maud a source a income. Why wasn’t there more development of Maud and Lilly’s relationship? Are our expectations to high in this modern age to appreciate the more subtle shadings of development the author employed to progress their relationship? Why in the hell was the last part so damn long?? 100+ seemingly endless pages on Sue’s escape from the madhouse, her travel to London, stalking Maud for days and then about 12 pages surrounding the culmination of all the cross plots and Gentleman death.

We have since been told that this is not the best of Sarah Water’s novels and while I am intrigued by the summations for her other works- Affinity and Twisting the Velvet- I find myself shying away from attempting a second title after being burned so disappointingly by Fingersmith. Guess I’ll soak my figurative fingers in icewater and see how I feel in a few weeks.