Thursday, August 31, 2017

August Reading Wrapup

After the great gaggle of books completed last month, I had a slightly less voluminous reading month in August.  There were some books I enjoyed more than others, and the topics covered in these works are as varied as the forms in which I read them.  Here's the rundown -

Bitch Planet Volume 1, by Kelly DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (digital comic)
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil de Grasse Tyson (audiobook)
Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder
A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid
Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (audiobook)

A Beautiful Composition of Broken, by R.H. Sin
Moby-Dick: or, The Whale, by Herman Melville
She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, by Chelsea Clinton
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast
The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt
The Anti-Inauguration: Building Resistance in the Trump Era, by Haymarket Books (e-book)

Here's hoping that September is another fulfilling month of reading!  What did you read in August?

Please note - there will not be a new post until September 7th.  Have a happy long-holiday-weekend, everyone!

Librorum annis,

Monday, August 28, 2017

Why Poetry? by Matthew Zapruder

How many of us were forced to study poetry in school, possibly by teachers who, themselves, were forced to study it and therefore weren't very enthusiastic or knowledgeable?  Has this impacted your reading much poetry have you read in the past few years?  This has certainly been the case with me.  Sure, we studied poets from centuries gone by - Whitman, Dickinson, Byron, Dante, etc. - but we were so bogged down by the analysis of the poet's use of techniques and forms that "reading poetry" was never a pleasurable experience. 

Flash forward quite a few years, to 2015, and I had a poetry renaissance.  I think it was when I randomly picked up a copy of Robin Coste Lewis' collection Voyage of the Sable Venus that I began to see what poetry could really do.  This masterwork is divided into three main sections, in one of which all of the poems are made up solely "of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present" (pg. 35).  The poems are crafted in such a way that, if you had not the background information on the work, you most likely never would have guessed that they weren't directly from the poet's mind to the paper.  Not only the creativity is remarkable, but the breadth and depth of research that would be required to undertake such a project is gobsmacking.  Lewis is insightful, playful, and unafraid to confront the ugliness of the world's treatment of the female, black body throughout time. Voyage of the Sable Venus was one of my favorite books of 2015, and it set me on a trajectory that has only increased my poetic reading since then.

Recently, collections like Patricia Lockwood's Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Juan Felipe Herrera's Notes on the Assemblage, Spring and All by William Carlos Williams, The After Party by Jana Prikryl, and Najwan Darwish's Nothing More to Lose have challenged my poetry-reading skills.  They play with forms, subject matter, and style to such a degree that, at times, I felt like the poetry was "too smart" for me, or that I just didn't "get it".  This shouldn't be the case, but I know that it was mostly due to the poor poetry studies in my youth.  So, I was genuinely pleased when I found Why Poetry, by Matthew Zapruder.  

Zapruder is an award-winning poet, teacher, and general Johnny Appleseed of poetry.  In his book, he is on a mission to spread the love of poetry through an increased understanding of its aims, forms, styles, and other major components.  He is most interested in investigating how great poetry uses language to create a poetic state of mind in the reader. As a young child, he was enraptured by poems like Henry Wordsworth Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha" and W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" but never seriously considered poetry as a career path until he had almost finished a PhD in Russian.  So, he understands his students' apprehension or disinterest in poetry, but is full of techniques and insights that he shares in Why Poetry.  Each chapter features a different component of poetry that he wants to communicate, then he provides some personal anecdotes or historical facts surrounding its use, and then breaks down a few poems, or fragments of large poems, to illustrate how that component was utilized.  This analysis is something I found most helpful, especially when it comes to matters of form, which is the area in which I feel the most uncertain. 

In the first chapter, Zapruder brings the reader into his history and early experiences with poetry.  He analyzes a fragment of Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" and talks about how reading that poem was a watershed moment for him.  At the time, he didn't understand exactly why he connected so much with the poem, but over time and re-reads, as well as with his growing education in poetry, he was able to talk more coherently and specifically about what Auden was doing in the work, and why it was so engaging. 

Chapter 2 talks about one of the most important parts of poetry, really of language itself - the use of words.  The author emphasizes that readers of poetry should take the poet's words at face value, at least initially.  Think about why the poet chose the words that she/he did, and all the possible literal meanings those words might have.  Sometimes this takes a little dictionary/internet research, but if it enhances your understanding and appreciation of the poem, then it's time well spent.  Chapter 3 builds on this topic, with the author deeply analyzing a portion of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself", Wallace Stevens' "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon", and a section of Brenda Hillman's "Death Tractates".  Most of the language is used literally, and any figurative associations are coincidental to the main idea of the poem.  It's only through close and thorough review, guided here by Zapruder, that you can begin to see significant examples of non-figurative language used to great poetic effect.

The fourth chapter moves into the more figurative and less straightforward aspects of poetry.  Once you have a good grasp on how to read the literality of poetry, you're ready to move into the odd.  As a student of the Russian language, the author references a not-easily-translatable Russian word "ostraneniye" which means something like "defamiliarization" or (my personal favorite) "strangeifying".  This is in contrast to those aspects of daily life we go about in almost a robotic fashion, where everything is habitual and routine.  Poets strangeify the world through paying attention to those things, and not letting them become too automatic, and seeing them in ways the rest of us might not expect.  In this chapter, the author looks at the poems "Suicide's Note" by Langston Hughes, an unnamed poem of Emily Dickinson, and Antonia Machado's "At a Friend's Burial". 

Chapter 5 looks at how poems are structured, and some of the reasoning for using a rhyming scheme or not.  The author, early in his poetry-writing life, bought one of those massive The Norton Anthology of Poetry collections, and discusses what the experience was like of reading it.  For him, it felt that the act of writing poetry "can be a kind of seemingly impossible communion, with someone far away in time and space" which is kind of a beautiful thing to think about.  Even after the poet is long gone, if her/his poetry speaks to something that means something to someone, it's like that poet is living on in concert with the reader.  One of the poems that Zapruder dissects is William Carlos Williams' short, untitled poem about the "red wheel barrow".  The author writes that "The line breaks and filmic way this ordinary scene is parceled out to our consciousness by the mechanism of the poem slows us down long enough for us to see once again what has become too familiar.  That is the 'message' of the poem"; it's such a complicated yet simple work, because there is nothing of significance, but in the end everything is of significance because it is noticed.  He also talks about how it is far less common for modern day poets to work in a rhyming structure, partially because it feels quaint and outdated, and partially because it affects the emotions and perceptions of the reader in ways the poet might not intend. 

The sixth chapter focuses on the frustrations that many readers have with trying to "get" the meaning or intention of poems.  Chapter 7 examines the tendency of modern poetry to jump around seemingly at any moment and without cause but, upon reflection and analysis, those jumps might not be so random at all.  It's also highly unlikely that poems have only one specific message to convey.  As the author writes, "the poem places us in a state of heightened importance, with a sense that everything matters intensely at the moment it is being experienced".  Internal consistency isn't of much importance across the entirety of the poem, as long as the essence of the work is so.  Neither are the other conventions of literature, such as plot, logic, characters, settings, etc.  These are of only slight interest to the poet.  With poetry, embrace the strangeness.

Chapter 8 explores the subsection of poetry that focuses on politics and/or political themes.  The author contends that, if you are a person who cares deeply about issues like gender, the economy, race, and environment, then the poetry you write, if you allow it to flow naturally onto the page, those topics will find themselves in your poetry without having to try to hard to fit them in.  Because the political world is almost always a strange place, poets should not be afraid to defamiliarize terms that politicians regularly toss around, in their work.

Chapter 9 extends the author's analysis and explanation around the "jumping" that can happen in poetry.   In particular interest is poetry that reads almost like stream of consciousness or dreams in that there are tenuous or thin threads connecting the poem's content from one line to the next, but over the entirety of the work there is seemingly nothing in common - called "associative movement".  The author uses Robert Hass' poem "Meditation at Lagunitas" to explore this kind of poetic movement. 

The tenth and eleventh chapters dive deeply into the use of symbolic language in poetry, and the different occasions where one might choose to employ it or not.  Chapter 12 shares in the author's coming to realize that just as clay is a medium for a sculptor, or watercolors are for a painter, that words and language are the medium in which a poet works. 

The thirteenth and final chapter explores the ways that poetry moves and changes us, sometimes without us being able to articulate exactly why or how it happens.  The author explains that, "a poem is like a person.  the more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand".  So that sense of not quite understanding a poem just means that there is more and more to come back to and make meaning and connection.

As someone who has read some poetry and wondered what the heck was happening, or if I just wasn't smart enough to understand it, I found Why Poetry extremely comforting and helpful.  It's a crash course in poetics, led by a professor who is kind, knowledgeable, and funny.  I feel more of a sense of confidence in now when I read poetry collections, that however I'm feeling is appropriate and valuable.  It also instilled a deeper sense of analysis that will allow me to see more deeply into some of the constructs and construction of poetry.  If you are interested in trying some poetry reading of your own, but have a bad taste in your mouth from poetry lessons in your school days, I would highly recommend giving Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry a try. 

Librorum annis,

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The "Beautiful Book Covers" Tag

It's no secret that many of us on the literary interwebs love beautiful books.  Not just beautiful because of their sweeping prose, exciting plots, or engaging characters, mind you, but also gorgeous book cover design.  Covers that, when we see them, draw you in or make you stop and stare.  Covers that speak to you in some way, and give you a taste of what the contents of the book will reveal.  It was with this in mind that I decided to explore the Beautiful Books Tag, created by booktuber Jason Purcell.

Choose five of the most beautiful books in your library...

The After Party, by Jana Prikyrl - the cover (a detail shot of original art by Elliott Green, called The Thing Imagines Itself) is a beautiful painting, full of sweeping brush strokes and soothing colors.

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (UK edition) - The watery cover flows across the spine and around both sides of the cover

The Abridged History of Rainfall, by Jay Hopler - I mean, it's an iridescent book cover, evoking rain showers.  So mesmerizing! 

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood (UK edition) - Mermaids. The sea.  Gold foiling.  Stunning!

Cold Pastoral, by Rebecca Dunham - This poetry collection's cover is beautiful not only because of its watery photo, but for what that photo explores - the effects of environmental catastrophes on the natural world.  What you see is an oil slick that resulted from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling expedition in the Gulf of Mexico.

Choose a beautiful book that features your most favorite color...

Blue is most definitely my favorite color, and the most beautiful "blue book" I own is the hardcover edition of Kirsty Logan's breathtaking short story collection A Portable Shelter. A naked hardback with a blue cover, extensive foiling, and oceanic design elements is something I absolutely love.

Choose your favorite cover of a classic...

The cover of Virginia Woolf's dog-perspective book, Flush: A Biography
Inside, showing the marbled pattern reminiscent of typical 19th century endpapers (and matching bookmark!)

I'm using this space to rave about the most beautifully published books, in my opinion, out there.  Persephone Books is an independent publisher, based in Bloomsbury, London, UK.  They focus on republishing forgotten classics, mostly written by women, and mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They are paperbacks with a dust jacket; the outside of which is dove grey with a white title box.  The inside endpapers are unique to each book, and reflect a fabric that was either of the time period when the book was originally published, or a fabric that is relevant to the story in some way.  They look absolutely amazing together on a shelf.  They are far-and-away my favorite classics' covers.

Choose your favorite edition of a children's book...

I don't have many children's books on my shelves, but one that does have a lovely cover is Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.  

Do you often buy books based solely on a beautiful cover?

Not exactly.  What usually happens is that I wander into a bookshop (or even sometimes go with a specific book in mind), look at the different editions of a book that interests me, and choose the one that strikes me as the most lovely.  Ultimately, it's the contents on the pages, not the cover, that matters most.  But, a beautiful cover doesn't hurt.

Out of all the books in your library, which one best exemplifies your ideal of a beautiful book?

The Everyman's Library omnibus edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman is just so stunning.  It features my favorite color, has extensive foiling, beautiful character illustrations, and an evocative atmosphere through the intermingling of all these components.

What makes a "beautiful book" to you?  Do you concern yourself with the covers of your books, or having certain editions on your shelves?  Or is this all a lot of nonsense?  If you're interested in doing the "Beautiful Book Covers" tag, then consider yourself tagged.

Librorum annis,

Monday, August 21, 2017

Praise Be - On Reading & Watching The Handmaid's Tale


The Handmaid's Tale is hands-down one of my absolute favorite books.  I first read it as a teenager and was blown away by the dystopian world that Margaret Atwood created and by the feminist perspective of the main character, who is only (definitively) known as "Offred".  It's a book that I re-read regularly (maybe every other year), and from which I constantly make new meaning.  With the current political climate, The Handmaid's Tale has become ever more prescient and relevant.  For a book, originally published in 1986, to be at the top of Bestseller Lists is certainly a telling thing.  When I heard that it was being adapted into a miniseries, I knew that I would watch the crap out of it - but possibly through my fingers.

Whenever word gets out that a beloved work is being adapted, fans inevitably worry that it won't live up to the original.  It's a common tale that a much-adored book is almost unrecognizable as a movie, because of the conceits and constraints of that form.  Entire (major) plot lines might be removed.  Characters may be added or removed or both.  Contentious or controversial scenes might be removed.  All of these things, and many more, can and do happen regularly.  In fact, it's really newsworthy when an adaptation captures the spirit and essence of the original work.  This doesn't necessarily mean that it more or less copies the source material exactly (book/movie of Shutter Island is an example), but is "faithful" in that the experience the viewer is left with after consuming the adaptation, and the messages transmitted through that experience, parallel those felt after consuming the source material.  I, myself, have been disappointed so many times by movies and TV shows I thought I would love, having read the books.  In particular, the 1995 adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter (Who thought it was a good idea to invent a happy ending?! 😧) comes to mind.  So, it was with extreme trepidation that I sat down last weekend to binge-watch the TV miniseries of The Handmaid's Tale.

I can confidently say that I LOVED it!!  Not only was it faithful to the novel, it expanded on the book in intriguing ways that then informed the wider story more deeply.  The acting was authentic and captivating, the use of music/sound was employed to great effect, and the world before and during Gilead's rise was brought to life in unflinching truth.  While I'm not going to do a recap of the series, I do want to discuss some key content as it compares to the novel.  Therefore, as noted at the top, unabashed spoilers (for the show and the novel) are coming.  Do with that what you will.


The novel remains mostly in the singular perspective of Offred, and therefore the cast of named characters is extremely limited.  Pre-Gilead, we learn about her friendship with Moira, her relationship with Luke, and their daughter.  Because the scope of the TV show can be larger than the source novel, the writers decided to encompass not only June's perspective but allow room for third person objective narration.  For example, in the novel the reader never learns Luke's fate, but in the TV show an entire episode is dedicated to him and his escape into Canada.  This allows the writers to explore and give depth to some storylines that were only touched on or hinted at otherwise.  It also leaves the door open for expansion of those storylines in the second season that is forthcoming.


Names are a very important part of the Gilead world.  There are the titles assigned to the levels of society - Commanders, Wives, Marthas, Eyes, Handmaids.  The novel introduces an additional division called "Econowives", who are the spouses of lower-level men in Gilead.  They don't feature in the TV show at all.  Despite their titles, everyone in this world is referred to by his/her given name when spoken to...except for the Handmaids.  They are completely stripped of their personhood and identities, referred to only as "Of(Commander's given name).  In the eyes of Gilead, Handmaids aren't full humans - only valued for their reproductive capabilities, so what use is it to the society if they have an identity.  And here lies a distinction between the book and the TV show - in the book, they are known to the reader only by their possessive-paternal names.  Offred is only Offred, Ofglen is only Ofglen, etc. The last sentence of the first chapter lists names of some of the women who are in the Red Center together - "Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June." but the reader never learns whose names belong to which Handmaid.  In the show, however, the Handmaids still casually refer to each other by their pre-Gilead names.  Offred is June, Ofglen is Emily, Ofwarren is Janine.  This returned a level of humanity and normalcy to these women.


In addition to titles and names, color also plays a crucial role in The Handmaid's Tale.  The Commanders and Eyes wear black suits of varying styles.  The Commander's Wives wear blue dresses (and, in the novel, matching veils).  The Marthas wear greenish-grey dresses with white smocks.  Handmaids wear red dresses and white hats.  The Econowives (not featured in the TV show) wear dresses containing stripes of blue, green, and red - because they must perform all the duties of the household. These colors make it easily identifiable as to who is in which caste, because that's exactly what this system is.  Based on your color, you're afforded certain rights and privileges.  It also makes it easy for prejudices to develop, which is something Offred muses about - women are divided in their oppression because they have no empathy for others outside of their own societal sphere.

In the novel, no specific mention is made of the racial makeup of the characters.  There's nothing explicit about diversity in the text, so it's left up to the reader to infer or apply their own preconceptions onto the characters.  With the TV show, that work is done for the viewer.  Of the more prominent characters - Moira and Luke are non-white, as is Hannah, Luke and June's daughter.  Beyond that, some of the background characters are not Caucasian, but the majority of them are.  If there was a critique I would offer, it would be to incorporate more racial and ethnic diversity in the actors. 

The Commander & Serena Joy

At the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale, the main character has been assigned to her third, and final, placement.  After three households, if the Handmaid cannot produce a child, she is deemed sterile by the government and relocated to The Colonies, to clean up toxic waste in horrific conditions for the rest of her life.  Offred never mentions the surname of the Commander and his wife, so the reader has to assume that she never learns it.  So why, then, did the writers on the TV show give them the name "Waterford"?  It comes from the infamous epilogue in the book, called "Historical Notes on The Handmaid's Tale".  I use the word "infamous" because it's a very divisive aspect of the work - some readers believe that it detracts from the overall story, lessening its impact and significance.  There is a line inthis epilogue where the narrator, a Cambridge University professor named James Darcy Pieixoto, talks about who Offred's "Fred" might have been.  One possibility is B. Frederick Judd, and the other is Frederick R. Waterford. Both were identified as architects of Gilead, and generally above reproach. 

Fred and his wife Serena Joy were cast very differently between the book and the TV show.  Both are in their 50's - much older than as they are portrayed in the TV show, and described as looking overweight and saggy.  In the TV show, they are at least a few decades younger, much more attractive.  Also, none of the Commander's Wives wear veils at any point.  I suppose this is a bit of the Hollywood seeping in...assuming that audiences would respond more positively to a young, attractive couple.  This assumption would also extend to the Ceremony scenes, where the Handmaids are ritualistically raped by the Commanders.  What would it have meant for the producers to cast these characters more closely to how they were described in the novel?  I wonder if the antagonistic characteristics of The Waterford's would have been diminished in any way.

The power dynamic, and its gradual shifting, within The Waterford's relationship was a fascinating component of the TV show, and was a storyline that was non-existent in the novel.  In the flashbacks to the pre-Gilead time, Serena Joy was a vibrant and engaging public speaker, author, and activist for an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist way of life.  She and Fred were equal partners in the bringing about of Gilead, and Serena Joy even wrote many of the philosophical dictates that later became law.  However, as soon as the patriarchal, totalitarian regime was installed, her contributions were attributed to her husband, and she immediately lost all of her former confidence with him.  In the earliest days of Gilead, Fred was seen as fighting unsuccessfully for her to have a place in the leadership.  By the time June enters their household, Fred no longer values Serena Joy and readily treats her like an ignorant child.  The resentment that builds up in her character could easily build up to a point where she makes a dramatic decision.  I suppose we'll have to wait until Season 2, to see what happens there.


Nick is, in both the novel and the TV show, an enigma.  He's Commander Waterford's chauffeur and an Eye, presumably spying on Waterford and everyone else in the household.  He lives in an apartment that is on the Commander's property, so he enjoys a level of privacy not afforded to anyone else in the house.  When it becomes pretty clear that Offred won't be getting pregnant by Fred, Serena Joy arranges for Nick and Offred to have sex - thinking that they might be able to produce a child for her and the Commander.  This leads to a relationship that satisfies some needs, but makes a more squicky gray area for both of them.

Where the TV show diverges is that it gives Nick a backstory - a young man, forced by crappy circumstances, to be the sole provider for his family.  When we first see him, he is in an unemployment office.  He's been in and out of many entry-level jobs, and frustrated to not be able to live the life he wants.  The office man he's meeting with turns out to be a prominent member of the Sons of Jacob, and recruits Nick to join the group. 

It's never clear whether Nick ever fully buys into the ideals of Gilead, but he has certainly attained a position of tremendous privilege from his association.  June is never entirely sure if Nick is a "true believer" or a member of the Mayday resistance group.  This is especially important in the pivotal scene at the end of the story, where June is being apprehended by Eyes.  Before they enter the Commander's house, Nick comes to her and tells her to go with them, that they're part of the Mayday resistance, and it'll be ok.  But, June isn't able to know for sure if he's telling the truth or not.  That is the major cliffhanger - what happens to Offred once she's taken by the Eyes?


In the novel, when the first Ofglen is replaced, Offred is never entirely sure what happened to her.  The new Ofglen offers a scenario - the old Ofglen committed suicide before she could be apprehended by the Eyes as being a member of the Mayday resistance - but cannot be fully trusted.  In the TV show, we find out that she had a romantic relationship with a Martha.  Both women were punished: Ofglen (Emily) was subjected to female genital mutilation, while her partner was hanged from a construction crane as Emily watched.  After she healed, she was placed as a handmaid with another household, but was later apprehended by Eyes after she stole a Commander's car and drove around the marketplace.  The punishment scene took the form of a courtroom trial, giving the viewers a glimpse of what Gilead's legal system would look like.  There were no witnesses, no testimony, no chance for the accused to refute the charges.  Both women were gagged, not allowed to speak, and the judge simply asked that the prosecuting attorney attest that his arguments were the truth.  No defense attorneys are a part of this process, so the accused are immediately found guilty.  In the novel, there isn't even a mention of a Gilead justice system, because Offred had no encounters with it, nor knew of anyone who would have knowledge of it.


The daughter is never named in the novel, but we learn, when Offred is shown a picture of her, that she was given to a family who are loyal to the regime, and is dressed in white like all the other children of Gilead.  In the TV show, June is driven to where her daughter is being kept, allowed to see her talking with Serena Joy, but not permitted to interact with her.  Hannah has no idea that her mother is just a few hundred feet away.  When June sees her, Hannah is wearing pink...perhaps indicating that she will be a Handmaid-in-Training, as opposed to the implication from the novel that she will be fully incorporated into the upper levels of Gilead society. 


At the onset of the story, Ofwarren is heavily pregnant.  As fertility in Gilead is in a dire state, successful pregnancy puts the Handmaid in a position of almost reverential power.  That is, until the baby is weaned and given to the Handmaid's Commander and his wife.  Therefore, the other Handmaids are entirely jealous of Ofwarren - feeling that she is "showing off" by being out in public and making a display of her belly. 

In the TV show, Janine delivers a healthy baby, but is unable to bear the reality that her daughter will be taken from her, and she will be shipped off to another household to start the process all over again.  She has convinced herself that Warren loves her and will run off with her to start a new life, and when she realizes that is not going to happen, she is willing to end her own life.  She and June were brought to the Red Center at the same time and, because they knew each other well enough, June was forced to act as a crisis mediator - literally talking Janine, who was holding the infant, off of a ledge. 

In the novel, Janine delivers a baby girl who is believed to be healthy.  However, a few days later, it becomes clear that there is a birth defect, and the baby is disposed of.  Also in the novel, much is made by Offred about how Ofwarren was a particular favorite of Aunt Lydia, and received special privileges for tattling on her fellow Handmaids-in-Training.  It is Janine who received the lashing to her feet, and who received the gifts of food from the others, not Offred - as in the TV show.  In fact, in the novel, it is only Moira who orchestrates an escape from the Red Center, although she goes about it in the same way that is portrayed on screen. 

Other Characters

In the novel, the Commander has two Marthas in his house: Rita and Cora.  For the TV show, it must have been thought more convenient, for the storytelling, to include only one - Rita. 

In the novel, Offred and the Commander go to Jezebel's only once, and that is when she sees Moira for the first time since her escape from the Red Center.  There is no return trip of secret package, and the reader never finds out what happened to Moira after that.  However, for the TV show, it was necessary to give Moira some more agency and adventure, especially after she seemed to have had her spirit broken by the regime.  Her reunion with Luke, in Toronto's "Little America", sets up  the beginnings of what may possibly be a "good guys" group, that will somehow get involved in fighting back against the "bad guys" of the Gilead regime. Or at least (hopefully) in getting June to safety.  I expect that will be a significant plot in Season 2 of the show. 

The only reference to June's mother, in the TV show, is when the smuggler acknowledges that he's doing her and Luke this favor in memory of June's mother.  In the novel, however, Offred's mother plays a vital role in her pre-Gilead world.  It's only after the regime comes to power that they are separated, and she is never entirely sure what came of her mother, although she assumes she's dead or in The Colonies.


In addition to the expansion of some of the characters and storylines, another way that the TV show transcends the novel is with music and sound.  In the book, Offred specifically talks about how silent Gilead is.  There is no music.  Time is told through tolling of bells.  Serena Joy (who had been a talented singer, before) in her new life she has no access to music.  In the TV show, music is employed chiefly to enhance the on-screen emotions, and does so very well.  Pre-Gilead, scenes with June, Moira, Luke, and later Hannah, feature easily recognizable Americanah songs - "Daydream Believer" by The Monkeys, and "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor.  There are also instances of pre-Gilead music being snuck into the regime, such as Janine singing "Three Little Birds" by Bob Marley to her newborn baby.  Otherwise, the only sounds we hear are ambient/electronica-style music.  They are especially prevalent in moments of deep frenzy or anxiety, as the dischordant sounds evoke similar feelings in the audience.  When the piece of music captures a moment in the story, it really is a magical experience.

There was one scene, however, where I question the specific choice of song.  In the final episode, after June leads the Handmaids in a revolt against Aunt Lydia's command to stone Janine to death, there is shot of the Handmaids walking in formation, back to their respective Commanders' houses.  The song is "Feeling Good" by Michael Buble, and in the way that the actresses are walking, they are actually swaying their hips in time to the music.  First of all, that song is a little too obvious and on-the-nose, compared with the other musical choices throughout the first season.  Second, it felt corny to have the swaying, almost like - at any moment - it could turn into a choreographed dance number.  That took me completely out of the story, and I remember rolling my eyes pretty hard when I watched it. 


The Handmaid's Tale was originally published in 1985, and most of the pre-Gilead references might feel a bit out-of-date to a 2017 audience.   To keep the show from feeling like a time capsule, the writers chose to move up the timeline of events.  The way the characters dress, talk, are addicted to their smartphones, and enjoy their freedoms feel like the events are happening right at this moment.  I could easily see myself as a friend of June and Moira, jogging and discussing the current political climate.  I believe that it was the right choice to do this modernizing, as it makes the story relevant for everyone, not just those who were of a certain age in the 1980's.  Viewers would likely disengage from the important messages of The Handmaid's Tale if they can't connect to the characters on some level.  This makes it a story for everyone.


As have been mentioned already, there are many places where the TV show diverges from the source material.  Many characters are given histories and backstories that just aren't present in the novel.  Characters, with previously unknown fates, are allowed to share their stories.  The demands of the rigid system of Gilead are taking their toll, and proverbial threads of the society are starting to show.  I understand that some of this was done to bring more fullness to the overall work, and that is achieved successfully.  However, these additional plot-lines also leave room for the story to grow and advance beyond the ending of the book.  It will be very interesting to see how the second season of The Handmaid's Tale progresses, as it will be entirely without source material to draw from. 

I truly believe that the "TV miniseries" format was the only appropriate one for a story like this.  It allowed plenty of time to build the relationships between characters, to illustrate the pre-Gilead society, and its complete eradication once the Sons of Jacob take control.  The adaptation is truly a faithful one to Margaret Atwood's novel, but it enhances and expands upon it in meaningful and authentic-feeling ways.  I am very intrigued to see what happens during the second season, and hopeful that it retains the spirit of the source material.  An adaptation that lives up to the reading experience - praise be!

Librorum annis,

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

Think back to the last book you read that featured aged or elderly main characters.  How were they portrayed?  Perhaps there was a doting and docile grandmother, knitting something and sitting in her rocking chair?  Maybe there was a grandfather, telling stories to anyone who would listen.  How were their lives portrayed?  What meaning did they have?  Often, the aged aren't given a lot of agency in their own lives - whether because of being patronized by younger generations or no longer being able to live independently - which imbues them with childishness.  What illustrator and author Roz Chast has done, to brilliant effect, in her graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant is present her elderly parents as fully-formed, complicated, human beings.  Here, there is no stereotyping and no shying away from the realities of life - for her and her parents - as they navigate what will be their final years together.

Roz was born in Brooklyn, to parents who were much older than her friends' parents.  Her parents were the children of immigrants, who came to America with nothing and lived tremendously difficult, bitter, tragic lives.  They met in elementary school, never dated anyone else but each other, and were completely co-dependent for the entirety of their marriage.  Chast often brings up how she felt like an outsider in their family.  As an only child, it was just her and her parents, and she felt like the third wheel in that relationship instead of a valued member of the family.  Interspersed between the illustrations are facsimiles of some family photos; in almost none of them is Chast smiling.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was domineering and angry, often giving "a blast from Chast" to anyone who upset her.  She was the assistant principal in an elementary school most of her life, and was perfectly suited to that authoritative role which allowed her to tell other people what to do.  She was a rigid perfectionist.  She was a classically-trained pianist and writer of poetry, but not what you might call a nurturer.  Late in the book, Elizabeth relates a story that Roz had completely blocked from her memory - as a very young child, Roz wandered away from her mother in a department store once and, when the frantic Elizabeth found her, she beat Roz violently.  Elizabeth expressed some remorse at her behavior only now, which was many decades after the event happened.  Needless to say, they did not share an idyllic mother-daughter relationship, or have much of a relationship at all.  She did, however, treasure her relationship with her father, George.  George, a high school teacher, was very similar to Roz in personality and temperament.  They were both only children, given to anxiety, ambivalent about many things, and lovers of language.  He wasn't good at fixing things, or making decisions about anything.  Her father never was able to stand up to Elizabeth during her rages, but Roz knew that he cared for her very much.

The story's plot involves her parents' decline, from old age and assorted health issues, and how the characters cope.  Spoiler alert - not very well.  At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth and George are in their late 80's and still living in the same "deep Brooklyn" (Flatiron) apartment where they spent their entire married lives.  They had piles of papers and magazines everywhere, and an entire life's worth of stuff hoarded into this small apartment.  Where they had once been fastidious, they were now too frail and proud to be concerned with tidying up or letting anyone else do it for them.

After trying to use a step-stool to get into a tall closet, Roz's mother experiences a bad fall, causing her a lot of pain.  Her father calls Roz, who is living with her own family in Connecticut, asking for help because Elizabeth was obviously in pain but being too stubborn to admit that she needed to go to the hospital.  It was only after the pain was too severe for her, even when just laying in bed, that she let George, who didn't drive, call an ambulance to take them.

She drove out to the hospital to be with her parents then, when her mother was finally admitted, she and her father drove back to the apartment, then they both went back to her house in Connecticut.  George was in the middle stages of senile dementia, and had trouble with his short-term memory.  He was forgetful about things, and had difficulty with tasks like how to open a bag of breakfast cereal.  He would ask Roz where Elizabeth was, and each time was shocked when she told him that his wife was in the hospital.  During all of this, Roz was racked with guilt about what she could have done, if she's being a terrible daughter, what she should do, and how she could possibly deal with this.

It's at this point that there is a shift in the distinction between who's the "parent" and who is the "child".  She had to be in charge of all her parents' major life decisions, from their living situation to their medications, from their insurance to their finances.  When her mother was at last discharged from the hospital, Roz at first wanted to believe that they were ok back in Brooklyn.  There were neighbors who were willing to help out, it was a long trip back and forth to Connecticut, and her parents were driving her bonkers.  But these were just excuses, and she knew it.  They were frail, they weren't leaving the apartment, and Elizabeth refused to wear her Life Alert pendant because she was afraid of having to go back into hospital.  This compounded in Roz the feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and worry.  Although her mother fought kicking and screaming all the way, Roz  found a qualified assisted-living facility 10 minutes away from her home, and they were placed there.  In fact, they all referred to it as "The Place".

An entire section of the book is devoted to the process of cleaning out her parents' apartment.  Not only are scenes drawn, but Roz also includes copies of photographs, showing the collection of handbags, razors, writing implements, and books/papers that had accumulated.  It's mind-boggling just how much can be crammed into a small apartment over decades and decades.  It actually felt like an episode of the TV show "Hoarders" because there were drawers containing jar lids, empty egg cartons left in the fridge, and kitchen appliances that had long-since stopped working but were still on the counter - just in case.

The Place was about a home-like as could be expected for assisted living.  There were norms that Roz's parents bristled at, including unofficial "assigned seating" at mealtimes and door decorations on the front door of the apartments.  They were a unit, George and Elizabeth, and weren't interested in making friends or getting involved in groups or activities.  Elizabeth was still very weak from her hospitalization, and how needed a walker to get around.  But, their personalities hadn't changed one bit, especially Elizabeth's bossiness, which made them somewhat unpopular with the other residents.  They resented the rules and the forced socialization, and complained of feeling like inmates in The Place.

When George had a bad fall, after getting up from the sofa in their apartment, and was rushed to the hospital, thing began to deteriorate quickly.  He was eventually transferred to a nursing home, then back to The Place when he began hospice care.  George died in 2007.  Elizabeth lived in The Place, with extra hired nursing assistance and, eventually, hospice, until she passed away in 2009.

While Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant explores the aging process, it also focuses on the caregivers.  Being responsible for the well-being of aging family members comes at a great cost.  First, there's the financial cost - housing, food, living, and medical bills.  All of this costs money, which isn't something that you are really prepared to deal with until you're confronted with it head on.  Roz's parents had saved a sizable amount of money over their lives, but the cost of their care was eroding it quickly.  Then, there's the emotional cost.  It's not easy to be the child in the family, and then suddenly have to be the parent.  Assuming that role opens up the potential for resentment and anger on the part of the aged, who -for any number of reasons- don't want to admit that they need assistance with basic needs.  It's not uncommon for stress and anxiety to build up, to the point that the caretaker can easily become burnt out.

I actively sought out this book, because it's subject matter is relevant to my situation at current.  It's not my parents who are near the end of their lives, as was the case with Roz, but it's my grandmother.  Born during the great depression, she married a WW2 veteran right after high school, was a homemaker, and raised two sons - my father and his brother - before being widowed in the 1970's.  At 85, she's been suffering from some chronic health problems that are becoming more serious, including infections and dementia.  She has poor vision, but refuses to wear corrective lenses.  Because of this, she is unable to bathe properly or maintain her home.  She leaves burners on because she can't see the flames and just assumes they're turned off.  She can't drive, and is dependent on my father (my uncle lives many hours away) for just about everything.  Within the past 2 years, it's become painfully obvious that she is unable to live on her own, because it's unsafe and unsanitary.

The scenario that Roz illustrates about her parents being in The Place is instantly recognizable in that of my grandmother being moved to her senior community.  It's not even assisted living, technically, but an apartment complex geared specifically towards those over 55.  However, she was absolutely resistant to the idea.  She complains that she feels like a prisoner there.  Yet, there are plentiful activities, social groups, religious services, and off-site activities (with transportation) which she simply refuses to join.  She hasn't fallen, but there have been emergency situations where she's had to go into hospital, and just like Roz's mother, she wants nothing to do with them.  She refuses to follow medical advice, and then complains that she doesn't feel well.  All of this is especially taxing on my father, who is her primary caretaker.  He is the quintessential dutiful son, and has gone to great lengths to make sure that my grandmother is well cared for.  However, just like Roz, he gets burnt out.  He's got a great support system in myself and his wife, but another thing that helps is just to remember to laugh when you can.

My grandmother's dementia makes conversation a bit frustrating, like when she was convinced that the staff at her apartment complex were stealing from her (they weren't), but sometimes it makes her stories - and she's always been a storyteller - hilariously bizarre.  Oh how I wish I had written down some of the things that she's said.  One of her favorite phrases was that her side of the family were "good, German, peasant stock".  That's why it made me laugh when I read about Elizabeth saying "I'm built like a peasant".  Even though Roz's parents were the same age as my grandmother's parents, they were incredibly similar in their outlook and the things they would say.

Overall, it was really helpful reading Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant.  It's helpful to know that what you're experiencing isn't unusual or strange.  It's beneficial to see other people struggling with the same things as you, even if those things are really difficult.  The aging/dying process is generally something that our Western society avoids at all costs, so it was helpful to get a realistic representation of aging in a wider context, like literature.

There is a tremendously raw honesty and truth to what Roz Chast presents in Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant.  There's no sugarcoating or averting one's gaze from the aging process, and just how treacherous it can be to those who are the most vulnerable.  Roz is a dutiful daughter who, after many years of avoiding her parents, takes on the critical responsibility of caretaker for them in their last years.  There is also a warning in here, for those of us who aren't yet in our "golden years" - be prepared.  Have those difficult conversations about what you want your last years to be like.  Plan and prepare, setting aside as much money as you can, so that you can maintain a good quality of life for you and your loved ones.  This is advice for all of us to heed, which we can hopefully do with the humility and hilarity that Roz Chast has done.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Mid-Year Book Tag

I know that we're looking at the halfway point of 2017 in the rear-view mirror, but I couldn't resist taking on the "Mid-Year Book Tag" challenge.  As I work toward fulfilling my reading challenges, it's nice to take a step back and look at all the books I've read so far this year, in toto.  It gives a different perspective, stepping away from focusing on ticking boxes and meeting goals. 

The Best Book You've Read So Far

This is really hard, for a few reasons.  First, I've read a lot of books this year - over 100.  Many of them were new releases/new-to-me, but there were a few re-reads sprinkled in there as well.  Second, I'm not sure how I want to define "best".  Is it the quality of the writing?  The subject matter?  The character development?  The feelings I had when I read it?  Third, I've read fairly widely so far in 2017, and how do I compare a book of poetry to a translated novel to deep-dive of non-fiction?  I struggle and I flip-flop...which is why I took the easy (non-committal?) way out.  With that in mind, here are what I'll call the "best" from each of the categories (as I haphazardly selected them) at this point in the year:
  • Best Novel - Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
  • Best Poetry - My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet
  • Best Short Story Collection - Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enriquez
  • Best Essay Collection - The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit
  • Best Memoir - M Train, by Patti Smith
  • Best Non-Fiction - Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong - and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini
  • Best Graphic Novel/Memoir - Bitch Planet Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine, by Kelly DeConnick and Valentine De Landro

The Best Sequel You've Read So Far

In looking over my reading, I haven't actually read any sequels in 2017.  I don't often read books that aren't stand-alone, so this isn't terribly surprising.  I do tend to read companion novels, however, and that's how I decided to approach this prompt.  The best companion novels I've read so far are the three translated works from Yuri Herrera - Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Transmigration of Bodies, and Kingdom Cons.
All three are allegorical stories of illegal immigration, drug trade, corruption, and organized crime - between Mexico and the United States.  None of the characters, settings, or plots recur between the three novels, but they fit together so seamlessly that it's impossible not to link them together.

A New Release You Haven't Read Yet, But Want To

I have a copy of David Sedaris' published journals, Theft By Finding, but haven't had a chance to read the tome yet.  Actually, at over 500 pages, it might be more enjoyable to read a few days' entries at a time, rather than read the whole thing in one go.  I'm excited to read it, loving the author's oeuvre, but just haven't decided how I want to approach it yet.

Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2017

There are three authors, all of whom I completely love, who have new works being released in the second half of 2017: Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison, and Jeffrey Eugenides.  When I refer to publication dates, they are all for United States publishers.  I cannot guarantee that publication in other countries will take place in the second half of 2017.

Jesmyn Ward has a new novel being released on 5 September called Sing Unburied Sing.  I'm a huge fan of her memoir Men We Reaped, and her novel about New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina called Salvage the Bones.  They're amazing, heartbreaking stories, full of powerful writing and personal struggle. 

I am completely gobsmacked that we're getting something new from Toni Morrison - a collection of her lectures called The Origin of Others.  The topics range from race, to fear, to isolation, to wall-building, to refugees, to belonging.  It's being released on 18 September.

On 3 October, Jeffrey Eugenides is having his first short story collection, Fresh Complaint: Stories, published.  I absolutely adored his epic family saga Middlesex, and his novel The Virgin Suicides.  I can't wait to see how he treats the short story format.

The Biggest Surprise

My biggest surprise of 2017 thus far was the non-fiction book Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper.  Before hearing about this on a Book Riot podcast, I would never have considered a book about dictionaries being something that I needed to read.  But I did - oh I did!  It was brilliantly written, part memoir and part research project, and hilarious to boot.

The Biggest Disappointment

So far in 2017, the biggest disappointment was the novel The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide and translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland.  It had an adorable premise - a lonely couple is visited every day by a neighbor's cat.  The novel is a meditation on relationships and humanity's interaction with the natural world.  However, for my tastes, the novel veered too far into the realm of prose poetry.  There was very little focus, and it read as though the author was trying to reach some grand conclusion, or make a prolific point, but the writing just never got there.  This was disappointing, and took away from my enjoyment of the work overall.  Not even inclusions of cats, normally something I'm drawn to in literature, was not enough to make this story come alive for me.  I was wrapped up in the poetry of the novel, and it's beautiful imagery, but the rest of it fell flat.

Favorite Debut/New-to-You Author

My favorite new-to-me author is Claire Fuller, author of two novels thus far - Swimming Lessons and Our Endless Numbered Days.  I read Swimming Lessons earlier this year, and was completely enraptured by her beautiful, atmospheric writing and her captivating characters.  I plan to read Our Endless Numbered Days before the end of 2017, and I'm hoping to love it just as much.

Newest Fictional Crush

While I haven't had a crush on a character in a book for quite a long time, I could see my younger self getting a little moony over the main characters in Sandhya Menon's delightful When Dimple Met Rishi.

Newest Favorite Character

Out of the books I've read so far in 2017, there are a few characters I've been drawn to.  Some are endearingly grumpy, like a beloved grandparent.  Others are so over-the-top unbelievable that you can't help but be drawn into their drama and watch what unfolds.  Still others tug at heartstrings or moral compasses, and engage your humanity.  The last of these categories is into which falls my pick for newest favorite character - Samuel Long, the titular character in Norman Lock's A Fugitive in Walden Woods.  Long is a runaway slave, rescued by an abolitionist family and then smuggled to a tenuous freedom along the Underground Railroad, until he is hidden amongst the literary elite in Concord, Massachusetts.  He encounters Henry David Thoreau at his shack on the banks of Walden Pond, and the two of them educate each other about humanity and the world around them - Thoreau talks of metaphysical and spiritual matters, while Long explains the concrete realities and the violence of slavery.  It's a beautifully imagined piece of historical fiction, and the character of Samuel Long is so strong that I couldn't help but consider him my favorite.

Book That Made You Cry

I cried throughout We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby.  Not because it was tragic, although at times it was, but because I laughed so hard.  There is such a raucous, vulgar hilarity throughout each and every one of the essays in this collection - I laughed until I cried.  Sometimes in public.

Book That Made You Happy

It's rare for me to read a book that gives me warm-fuzzies, but I read a book in July that I would describe as just so.  The Nakano Thrift Shop, by Hiromi Kawakami is chock full of quirky characters,  heartwarming plot-lines, romances, and the kinds of oddities that you might expect to find in a secondhand goods shop.  I compared the reading experience of this book to drinking a cup of hot tea on a dreary day - comforting and uplifting. 

Favorite Book-to-TV/Film Adaptation

It's been a few years since I last re-read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  Once I learned that Hulu was developing a miniseries based on it, I figured that was the catalyst for diving back into the world of Offred and Gilead.  I decided to wait until the series was fully released, so that I could binge it one after another.  I also decided to wait to watch the series until I had finished my re-read, so that the original characters and plot points were fresh in my mind.  It was a great decision, and I can honestly say that the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is one of my all-time book-to-tv/film favorites!

Favorite Book Review You've Written This Year

I'm most proud of the review I wrote for Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia - a published collection of letters, interviews, and other correspondence between the author, her publishers, and artists/fans/the press.  I finished the book in mid-March, and it was around that time that an article came out from an Italian journalist who, using ethically questionable methods, claimed to have "uncovered" the identity of Elena Ferrante.  It's widely known that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, used so that the author can maintain anonymity in her work.  In my review, I not only outlined my opinions of the tome, but also explored the problematic cultural voracity toward "unmasking" the true identity of the author.  

Most Beautiful Book You've Bought/Received So Far

One of the most strikingly unique books is the poetry collection The Abridged History of Rainfall by Jay Hopler.  It has an iridescent cover that refracts rainbows in the light; it's absolutely hypnotic.

What Books Do You Need to Read By the End of 2017?

I must finish the rest of the books in the Penguin Drop Caps series, which are classics (modern and not-so-modern) of the Western Canon.  I set this challenge back in January, and I've been making some progress, but not nearly enough.  So far, I've read 6 of the books, which means there are 20 remaining, and 4 months in which to read them.  Two of the books are Middlemarch and Moby-Dick, both are close to 1000 pages long.  Eeeeek!

And that's it for the Mid-Year Book Tag!   What are some notable books and characters from your reading thus far?  If you're interested in analyzing your reading through these prompts, then consider yourself tagged.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Samantha Hunt's short story collection The Dark Dark is a masterpiece of weird normalcy.  Each of the stories are so dark, engaging, and different from each other in tone, topic, and style...with the exception being the first and last stories.  She takes the everydayness of life and twists it a bit; holding a fun-house mirror up to the bizarrity we all experience. 

In "All Hands", we follow 3 characters - two Coast Guard officers and a high school secretary in Galveston, TX.  One of the officers is in a relationship with the secretary, and the other falls overboard after issuing a citation to a drilling company and drops multiple stories into the Gulf of Mexico.  The secretary is involved in the political fallout from 13 students who all got pregnant around the same time.  She encounters the other officer when he make it back to the ship after his fall.  The officers would respond to the order "all hands on deck", the officer who fell was "all hands" (clumsy) in handing the citation, and the pregnant teens spend time talking about their hands. 

In "Beast", a woman may or may not be turning into a deer at night.  Her hands and feet harden into hooves, fur grows on her body, her arms and legs thin, a tail appears, her face lengthen and her lips shrink.  It only happens at night; by the morning she's human again.  She isn't sure how to tell her husband - because how would anyone tell such a thing? - so every night she just asks him to inspect her for ticks.  Until one fateful night.

In "The Yellow", a 40-something man, living with his parents, hits another family's beloved dog when it runs into the road in front of his car.  For most of the story, as he gets acquainted (physically and otherwise) with the wife of the family, the dog is dead.  However, unexpected things happen and the dog revives.  Throughout, there are references to yellow in the color of his bedroom walls, the lines on the road, and his soul. 

In "Cortes the Killer", a girl returns home from the city to her family's farm for Thanksgiving, in the wake of her father's death from lung cancer.  The land around her family's home has been developed into strip malls and offices, however, her family has held onto their land.  Their mother worked for a company that sold myth retellings, and an amusement park bought the mother's myth about Montezuma and Cortes' first meeting.  She and her brother decide to ride their horse to Walmart for something to do, with devastating consequences. 

In "The House Began to Pitch", Ada, a new transplant to Miami, decides to weather her first hurricane without any preparations.  She fled her home in Rhode Island for reasons, and has made a new life in rural, Southern Florida.  Her neighbor Chuck, a beer-drinking conspiracy theorist, lives with his sister, a right-wing conservative lawyer.  In this story, the hurricane's overt rage and power is contrasted with that of Ada's which is quiet and internalized - bubbling just below the surface until it explodes. 

In "Love Machine", an FBI surveillance expert develops a realistic, humanoid robot (called Operation Bombshell) to use as a remote-detonation explosives carrier.  She's anatomically correct (full digestive, excretory systems, sex organs), and has some AI capabilities, so that she can converse with her target before setting off her explosives.  Essentially, she's a fully-functioning sex robot with a bomb.  Her target is Ted, a Unabomber-like hermit fellow out in the Montana wilderness, who has mailed bombs to scientists he dislikes.  He and the robot share cups of coffee and he tells her stories.  He sees his bombs as masterpieces of storytelling, actually.  They debate the inevitability of modern society, returning to pre-industrial life, and beauty.  It's this last topic that changes the course of the robot's mission forever.

In "A Love Story", the reader is contained within the mind of a stay-at-home mom who deals drugs and spends a lot of time worrying about all the bad things that could possibly happen to the people she loves.  She wonders why she and her husband haven't had sex in eight months.  At night, she pours over motherhood-based websites, reading about hormones and their effects on a fetus.  The stream of consciousness style of this story feels neurotic and obsessive, with the narrative bobbing and weaving around so many topics that are only tangentially connected to each other.  This sense of unease and worry stems from the motherly love that the narrator feels but is challenged with how to express it in a healthy way. 

In "Wampum", a teenage girl keeps a handbag full of treasures - rare currency, a stick with unusual  patterns on it, a deflated balloon, and things that were touched by her much-older crush, Trey.  She's left alone when her mother goes on a church retreat to meet men, and she invites Trey over.  Many things are traded back and forth as currency between them: Looks, items from her purse, and bodily fluids.

The very first story in the collection is called "The Story Of", and the final story is called "The Story Of Of".  They function as bookends, informing each other in a way that is reminiscent of the movies Inception and Memento.  There's a cyclical, deterministic relationship between Norma, her husband Ted (is he the same Ted from "Love Machine"?  I don't think so, but I can't be sure either), and Ted's half-sister who also happens to be named Norma.  In "The Story Of",  sister-Norma is pregnant, drug-addicted, and filthy.  Narrator Norma distinguishes herself by referring to the other as Dirty Norma.  Norma and Dirty Norma also appear in "The Story Of Of", but this time, there is also Ted's brother's wife and her baby.  And a gaggle of schoolgirl/lawyers, a notebook, and an abandoned mental hospital.  Norma and Dirty Norma end up meeting at the hospital, finding a notebook, and reading their own story in its page.  "The Story Of" and "The Story Of Of" are so similar that I felt some serious deja vu, yet they differ in significant ways.  To quote Norma, "It's never the same; it changes a tiny bit every time" - our memories

There are some definite themes running through The Dark Dark.  The first is, surprisingly enough, darkness.  It takes the form of literal darkness at night, dark moods, dark skies during storms, dark depths of water.  The stories themselves have a metaphysical darkness that pervades them.  The second theme is uncertainty.  All of the characters struggle with the choices they have made in their lives, whether they know themselves, know their own bodies.  Are they really just a combination of chemicals?  Can they trust their own minds?  What do they know and how do they know it?  What happens when how you're living your life goes against societal expectations?  The third theme is pregnancy/motherhood.  In every story there are instances of characters who are pregnant (unplanned and otherwise), trying to conceive, suffering miscarriages, giving birth, and having sex.  The desire for children is so great a presence that there is an image of a child on the cover of The Dark Dark...the image may be of a skeletal torso, and in the center/womb there is a void space that appears to be a small child. 

Another feature of the cover design is that it is evocative of a Rorschach test, with the addition of a barely-visible image of a deer superimposed on the lower-right side.  The main focus of "Beast" involves deer.  In the first line of "All Hands", the narrator mentions back sweat making a Rorschach blot on his Coast Guard uniform.  The Rorschach test was designed to analyze people's perceptions and to draw conclusions about personality traits and emotional health.  How a person interacts with the ambiguous pattern is just as important as the ultimate interpretation of the pattern that is given.  It seems that Samantha Hunt is testing her readers with their interpretations of not only the cover but of her stories.  Perhaps we can draw clues about our own selves in the world through the ways we make sense of The Dark Dark.

If you like stories that aren't afraid of getting a little weird, are beautifully written, and hold a mirror to our own lives, then I would heartily recommend The Dark Dark.  Each story creates a fully-formed world, with deep and intriguing characters.  There may be some stories that grab you more strongly than others, but each one provides a rich and interesting reading experience that I've never found in another short story collection.  The stories are dark dark, but the work is great great!

Librorum annis,

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reading Ella Minnow Pea for the First Time (in 2017)

As someone who loves reading and language, and teaches both writing and grammar, I have often been recommended Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea.  Many of the bookish podcasts I listen to discuss it as a silly, feel-good story.  I came upon it for a song at a recent book sale, so I decided that it was finally time to give it a read.  What I found on the pages was something darker and more applicable to the current political climate than I expected, and more relevant than I could have imagined.

Are you a lover of words and language?  Is freedom of expression important to you?  Do you value critical thinking and rationality over blind adherence to dogma?  Would you be willing to sacrifice your principles and better judgment in order to gain acceptance?  These are questions that I didn't expect to be asking myself while reading Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, but they became very pertinent very quickly.

The island nation of Nollop is located a few miles off the coast of South Carolina.  Once called Utopianna, it was renamed in honor of the man, a native of the island, who penned the famous pangram sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", Nevin Nollop.  His influence is everywhere on the island.  People live either in Nollopton or Nollopville.  There was a massive statue erected in his honor, upon which were glued letter-tiles that spell out his famous sentence.  It is this statue which becomes the source of so much suffering for the residents of Nollop.

One day, a lettered tile falls from the statue and breaks on the ground.  It's discovered by a little girl and brought before the island's governing body, the 5-member High Island Council.  The Council convenes an emergency meeting to discuss the meaning and implications of what has happened.  In their unanimous decision, they proclaim that the tile's detachment is an "Act of Nollop" - a symbol that Nollop himself no longer wants the residents to use that letter of the alphabet any longer.

Furthermore, the Council sets very strict rules around the adherence to the letter's prohibition.  If someone is found to have spoken or written a word containing the restricted letter, or possesses any written/typed material containing that letter, the first offense will be a public reprimand.  The punishment for a second offense is either flogging or spending time in the stocks - violator's choice.  The third offense results in immediate banishment from the island.  If a violator refuses to leave, or returns after being exiled, he/she will be killed.  There is no appeal process.  These punishment are carried out by the island's police force or their deputized auxiliary.  The only exception is that children under the age of 8 are still allowed to speak, write, and read the letter.

That first fallen tile contains the letter Z, and Council sets the effective date of restriction for that letter as August 7 (today!).  At first, Nollop residents don't think it's such a big deal, because Z isn't a frequently-used letter.  Although they think the Council's edict is silly, Nollopians are willing to go along with it because they don't see it as too burdensome.  But then things get really dark, really fast. 

Schools, libraries, and residents' homes are required to be rid all of their novels, textbooks, correspondence, etc...because what are the chances that any printed materials don't contain the letter Z?  Reading materials are banned en masse.  People who have a Z in their names must change their names.  Residents have to self-censor what they say, so that they don't accidentally utter a word with the restricted letter.  They also have to be careful because their fellow Nollopians are encouraged to report each other if they are aware of infractions. 

Some residents are quick to buy into this culture of secrecy and policing, willingly changing their own behaviors and tattling on their peers.  Others fly in the face of the regulations and feel the wrath of the punishments; they are eventually expelled from Nollop.  Still others make the conscious choice to remove themselves the island, before they have committed three offenses, clearly seeing the ludicrousness of the situation.  They leave behind their homes, possessions, livelihoods, and loved ones.  News of what is happening is spread via correspondence smuggled out by these immigrants.  Once it becomes clear to the islanders that all of their writing is being intercepted and read by government officials, looking for violations, this spread of information becomes a dear priority.

Meanwhile, more tiles continue to fall from the statue, forcing more and more restrictions.  As language becomes more arduous and pitfall-ridden, many more Nollop residents decide that it's no longer worth it to stay on the island.  Whole neighborhoods grow deserted.  In response to this, the Council rules that they now have the authority to reclaim abandoned properties for their own use.  Later on, they declare that they also have the power to evict current residents from their homes, without due process.  Council members, their families, and the police force are encouraged to take up residence in the recouped houses.

The Council believes strongly that Nevin Nollop is worthy of reverence, because he performed a miracle in crafting his pangram.  They pray around his cenotaph, and refuse to allow worship of any other Supreme Being except for the Almighty Nollop...Nollop eternal.  Some of the reclaimed properties are intended to be razed in order to build a Church of Nollop.

All of this gets the attention of Nate Warren, a graduate student in Georgia, who writes to one of the residents of Nollop that he would like to visit the island and talk with the Council.  A former Nollopian had absconded with some shards of a fallen letter-tile before he left the island.  A scientific analysis was run on the tile bits, and it was found that the adhesive, which attached the tiles to the monument of Nollop, had dried and grown brittle over time.  That, not some kind of divine intervention, was the reason behind the falling tiles.  Nate wished to discuss these findings with a Council member, in hopes that it might change their course of action.  He is able to come to Nollop, but even after he discusses the contents of the report, and how summarily they explain away the "phenomenon" of the falling letters, it has no impact.  In fact, the Council member with whom he meets argues that Nevin Nollop must have influenced the decision to use that adhesive, since it would eventually dry up and allow Nollop's will to be done through the falling tiles.  There was no scientific proof that would sway the Council away from their belief system.

The only success Nate has is in proposing a challenge, to see if anyone on the island can craft a pangram using fewer characters than Nollop did.  This is important, because the crux of the Council's system of belief is that Nollop is a god.  The Council believes wholly that it is impossible for the challenge to be successful, but they allow the residents to toil at it for the next 6 weeks, until Nollop's birthday.  It's called Challenge 32, as the winner will have to be able to craft a new pangram in 32 characters or less.  The only way they can work on this challenge, without invoking penalties on themselves for using outlawed letters, is to have young children do the writing for them.

While the first half of the novel gets us to this point, the second half is focused primarily on the progress that the residents make toward Challenge 32.  All the while, more letters continue to fall, making communication that much more difficult.  There are continually more people who are subject to the reprimands, physical punishments, and expulsions.  One resident is even killed by the island's police force.  This motivates many of the remaining people to flee, but the very few who stay on the island are singularly focused on meeting Challenge 32 by its deadline.  If they are unsuccessful, the result will be the eventual discontinuation of all communication and complete isolation.  Either Nollop will return to its prior utopian glory, or it will regress to a state of absolute censorship and total silence.

I found it rather serendipitous that I came to Ella Minnow Pea now, at this time in the world.  Although the novel was published back in 2001, it could easily be an allegory for the modern political climate.  After an event, that the Nollopians ultimately brought upon themselves from their shoddy construction of Nollop's cenotaph, the government seizes upon the opportunity to quickly enact a broad campaign of censorship and brutality.  This could be a criticism of the US government's actions in the Middle East, and against Muslims in general, after 9/11...the "War on Terror".

The prominent theme throughout the novel is censorship.  In the US, there is a strong desire amongst some groups to censor the media.  The White House press corps are censored from being able to record or transmit the briefings that they witness.  Books are regularly challenged and banned.  Truth is being pushed aside, by political leadership, in favor of "alternative facts" and "fake news" that reinforce narrow and deeply harmful ideology.

Even when presented with factual evidence that disputes their beliefs, and that should bring about positive changes, the island's High Council denies and resists.  It's almost like the steadfast convictions about the realities of climate change.  In spite of the plentiful scientific evidence that humanity is directly responsible for the rising temperatures on Earth, and the dire consequences that will come as a result, many politicians refuse to acknowledge that climate change is real, and reject any proposed changes or programs to counteract it.

There's the recurring image of Nollopian citizens being harshly punished and even evicted from the island, because they refuse to conform to the government's demands.  Could this speak forward to the US administration's current immigration policies?  Deportations are happening with shocking frequency, and the targets are often the most vulnerable populations.  The rallying cry of "send them back", even when the "them" are citizens of this country, rings loud.

That image also speaks to the desire of some in power to enforce conformity to their particular ideas of what is right.  Do you dress differently, worship differently, look differently, act differently, love differently, have a different skin color, read differently, communicate differently?  Any of these things make you a target for systematic repression and violence, in the service of enforcing same-ness. The Nollopians must endure this in their way, and so do many Americans.

The High Council makes it legal, at their discretion, for citizens' homes and businesses to be confiscated.  No legal recourse is available.  While there has been some flavor of this legislated in the US for a long time, a US Department of Justice Policy Directive 17-1 was released a few weeks ago, which allows the federal government to seize a person's assets, even if doing so is illegal by the relevant state's laws, without having to charge the person with any crime.

With each tile that vacates, correspondence becomes more and more lipographic. Near the end, there are so few letters left at the Nollopians' disposal that writing and speaking becomes unbelievably tedious.  At this point, grammar and syntax having little meaning or application.  Some people decide to stop communicating altogether and become silent.  They are like those of us who are insulated by our societal privilege.  They turn their backs to the widespread injustices happening all around them, until they can't do so any longer.

One Nollopian woman, Georgeanne, had been a ready tattler to the Council when they first passed their restrictive laws.  Once her husband was sanctioned and forced to leave Nollop, she awoke to the reality of what was happening.  She become so frustrated by the restrictions on language that she turned to art.  She obtained leftover house paint from abandoned homes and used it to create expressive canvases, which she gave to her neighbors.  In an act of desperate protest, Georgeanne decided to paint on her own body. Her artistic expression functions in direct contradiction to the legislated campaign of censorship.  Unbekownst to her, however, there was lead in the paint, which poisons her.  She eventually dies of lead poisoning, symbolic of the protesters who are killed or arrested (a symbolic killing of their freedom) as a result of their political activity.

From these observations, it really felt like Mark Dunn could have published Ella Minnow Pea in the past year, not 16 years ago.  The symbols that appear throughout the novel are entirely relevant now, and speak directly to the current, American, political leadership.  With this in mind, it wasn't surprising at all to read that Gold Leaf Films is working on a movie version of the book, with a tentative release date of 2018.  I look forward to seeing how the directive team treats the story.

In Ella Minnow Pea, the governmental actions are based on an arbitrary belief system that blinds the Council to any other explanations of the world around them.  They are so devout in this belief that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare of the entire island for it.  As today's date, August 7th, was the implementation of the first banning of a letter, it seemed entirely serendipitous to have read the novel, for the first time, now.  It's not the silly, happy-go-lucky story that I had been recommended, but is so much more than that.  It's relevant to our lives now, and speaks a truth that we all can benefit from.

Librorum annis,