Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cannonball Read #23: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This was Jen K's selection for the Pajiba Book Club, and my second Margaret Atwood novel. I finished it last night and have had a little bit of time to think about it. Though I don't think I really liked it while I was reading it, I've decided that it's really very well-done and I like it better now that I've reflected on it a little bit.

Atwood has basically three stories layering upon each other. The first is a memoir of sorts by Iris Chase, now an old woman looking back at her life. The second story comes from excerpts out of a book, "The Blind Assassin," which was written by Iris' younger sister, Laura, who died 50 years earlier. And the third story comes out through following the inner monologue of Iris as she mulls about her current, old-age life. Inserted randomly throughout are clippings from newspapers and society tabloids which show what happened, at least according to the public's perspective.

Though Atwood's writing is beautiful, and she has some really interesting and masterful turns of phrases, it was really difficult for me to get into the beginning of the book. Iris Chase writes about her family history, and the upbringing of her and her younger sister, Laura. They are from a wealthy privileged family in a small Canadian town, growing up pretty much ignored by their parents since their mother died when they were younger and their father is too busy/stressed out/oblivious because of his work. I actually got kind of bored reading about Iris' childhood because – even though there are some telling things about the two girls' personalities that would later resonate in their adult lives – they really didn't do that much besides study with their tutors (one of whom liked Laura in a Humbert Humbert way) and get boss around by Reenie.

In contrast, there is "The Blind Assassin," written by Laura and published after her death, which was what I really enjoyed in the beginning. Two lovers meet in secret, and after the sex, the man tells the woman a made-up story of a beautiful city called Sakiel-Norn where the wealth comes from beautifully weaved carpets, all of which are made by child slaves. Their small hands can better manipulate the loom, and these children are worked so hard that they are usually blinded by this trade at a young age; after which they are sold off as sex slaves to brothels, where their "suave and deft" touches are of high demand. They are also good at picking locks, and those who manage to escape become hired assassins, slitting throats in the dark.

The stories the children whispered to one another – while they sat weaving their endless carpets, while they could still see – was about this possible future life. It was a saying among them that only the blind are free.

Come on, isn't that awesome? If it was reality, not so awesome; but as a story, or a story within a story, this premise is just so attention-grabbing and interesting. Very, very unlike the childhoods of Iris and Laura. Luckily for me, Iris' and Laura's story gets better (or worse) as they grow older, but I'm not going to give away any spoilers.

Instead, I will talk about some of the issues I had while reading it. One of the harder things for me to do was to listen to Iris' drone on and on about the daily on-goings of her life (but you already know that) and at the end of it, she would write something like, "But there is something I left out here. I know I am not telling you everything." (I'm paraphrasing, not quoting her.) And it's clear, when you get to the end, that she's left out plenty.

On the one hand, I like getting the surprise at the end (though I figured it out halfway through what happened and felt pretty good about myself when I confirmed it by searching for spoilers online.) However, I'm also the type of person who likes to know what's going on, and without the palpable tension or the promise of impending "drama" (for the lack of a better word), I was seriously ready at certain parts to just take Winifred's opinion that Iris was kinda a dumb, young girl who married rich. Though Winifred, who was Iris' husband's harpy sister, was just a dreadful person, and I say this even though I know we only see it from Iris' perspective.

Another thing I disliked were both Iris and Laura. As young girls (as described by Iris) they barely seem like real people, only caricatures of rich white girls. Iris does as she's told and doesn't really say or do anything; Laura is sanctimonious, has her head in the clouds, and is trying to prep herself for a life of martyrdom, which might have also been why things ended up the way they did.

I think - no, I'm sure Atwood did this on purpose. At least for Iris, Atwood made it seem like she had no personality on purpose, just to show how little people cared back then about a woman's real personhood. (Laura was just fucking annoying.) There was one point where Old-Age Iris said that though she is the same person, body-wise, there is no way she could recognize the young Iris as the same self as present Iris. I'm nowhere close to being described as old, but I can certainly understand that sentiment when I look back at my self from ten years ago.

I also hated that these two sisters refuse to stand up for each other. There seemed to me to be a lack of love between them. They tolerated each other, and they loved each other out of obligation, not out of love or need. In the end, to me, this entire novel wasn't about two sisters and their family drama and how this dramatic familial love (I say this while rolling my eyes) resulted in this epic dysfunction. It was really about how Iris quietly coped with her inner struggle during her youth, and how her repression of her self led to her downfall. This is similar to Laura too, who in the beginning seemed like she would bravely do whatever she want and defy societal standards, but in the end was just like every repressed female during that time: sewing her mouth shut while allowing/watching injustices being inflicted upon herself and her sex.

Man, this book depressed me. I'd like to also clarify that while Iris left out loads of helpful narrative bits (palpable tension, as I said above) in her "memoir," she certainly portrayed her bleak future very, very well. I never once thought she was going to end up in a happy place.

Yay, feminism!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cannonball Read #21 and #22: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman; The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Oh Pajiba, how I love thee. Just for you, I bought a hard-cover book so that I could read it for the Book Club discussion. It usually takes me ages to actually put down cold, hard cash for a book, especially for one whose spine is stiffer than my own.

Lucky for me, The Graveyard Book was an awesome read. I literally devoured the pages (and yes, I used "literally" correctly because I was coughing up paper for days after) (ha ha, lame joke, just kidding - just wanted to annoy you grammar freaks) and finished it in a night, and after I was done, I was so sad. I wanted to know more about Bod's guardian, Silas, and I wanted to know how Bod got on in the normal world.

Nobody Owens, Bod for short, was raised in a graveyard by its ghostly residents. When he was a baby, he crawled into the graveyard in the night, pursued by a man who had just murdered the baby's family. The Owens, who have been dead for a long time, took him in as their own, and appointed Silas as his guardian. Silas is someone who belongs neither to the human world and the ghost world and is seen as very knowledgeable.

The entire book is basically about Bod's very special childhood, what he learns, and what he can do. I really liked the progression of how he went from being a child who asked a lot of questions to a teenager who was willing to stand up for himself and accept his differences as a part of himself.

Anyway, since this book is modeled after The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, I picked it up next. I don't remember the Disney cartoon, so this was pretty much a fresh impression for me. I think I made the mistake of trying to see the similarities because even though the general structure is the same, the story is quite different.

Mowgli is adopted by a pack of wolves in the jungle. His family of wolves refuse to give him up to the lame tiger who hunts him. The tiger had to give up Mowgli when the wolves took him in because he knew that he would not be able to defend himself against a united pack.

I thought it was interesting that Kipling gave the jungle a set of rules that all the respectable animals felt they had to follow. For example, most of the animals don't believe in eating humans because they are the weakest creatures and cannot defend themselves. The wolves also scorn the lame tiger because he attacks cattle and they are slow and not much of a challenge. Monkeys are often ignored because they do not have a code to follow and therefore are not considered worthy of attention.

Mowgli's story was only for half the book. There was also stories of other animals, like a snow white seal that roamed the oceans for a perfect spot to raise a family, a shore that no humans have ever touched. I also enjoyed the story of the mongoose that defends a human family from the cobras living in their backyard.

I do sincerely wish that I had read The Jungle Book when I was younger though. It's a very straightforward book, in terms of the character development and plot. There are also rhyme verses at the end of every chapter, so I can see myself enjoying that immensely as a kid – whereas now, I would want to rush through those. I'm glad I have read it, though (and I know it's almost criminal to say this) I think I enjoyed The Graveyard Book more. I liked how dark it was, and also how Gaiman once again touched upon his oft-used theme of personal growth and acceptance in the character of Bod.

Cannonball Read #20: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Kavalier and Clay came highly recommended by Pajiba – it's number one on the Best of the Decade's list. Though I went in having high expectations, it did not disappoint. I was a little put off by Chabon's blending of historical writing and narrative writing, but once I got past the changes in tone, I was able to see that it is this mix that makes the story so much more compelling.

Kavalier and Clay are cousins who decide to create their own comic book hero during WWII. Chabon goes into the history of how the comic book hero came from the newspapers funny page, and how it has evolved to become its own genre. The Escapist, the costumed hero that Kavalier and Clay think up, is sent all over the world to fight Nazis, which was a pretty popular topic since this was in the middle of WWII.

Josef Kavalier, a Jewish Czech who escaped from Nazi-infested Prague, is intense in his ambition to "defeat" the Nazis through his art. He wants to get enough money so that he can bring his family to America. Sammy Clayman (shortened to Clay) has lived in Brooklyn all his life and is kinda the brains – and he definitely has the imagination for it – to the Escapist's adventures on their pages.

While reading this, it seemed like a fairly straight-forward plot: two boys want to get rich getting into comics; Josef falls in love, Sammy does not; tragedy happens, and the fall out is in the final third of the book. However, as I am trying to organize my thoughts about this, I really don't know if I can get to everything.

Kavalier and Clay is about being young in America when the possibilities are endless. That may sound like a good thing, but it really can go both ways, and for both characters, it does. The Escapist becomes extremely popular - yet the boys' wages are peanuts compared to what the publisher is getting; Kavalier may have fallen in love, yet he feels guilty about his happiness when he thinks of his family in Prague; and finally (this one broke my heart) Clay finds someone he loves, and in the end, decides that it's better to be alone than to ever get hurt again.

What I love about it is that Chabon doesn't make it an easy route for both our heroes. Neither of them really stumble back into their happy periods - it's almost arduous and painful to read the middle part because I kept hoping and hoping that everything would turn out all right. But I think that's also what I really like best about the book.