Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even as they are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.

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Less Is More

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I talk too much. Whether it’s nervous chatter in an uncomfortable social situation or getting carried away by my own story-telling, I sometimes say too much. I’ll find myself oversharing personal information or saying silly things while trying to be clever, and I’ll end up feeling embarrassed or dissatisfied with the interaction. Or I’ll monopolize a conversation and then wonder if my friend thinks I’m too self-involved.

Nowhere is my tendency to say too much more apparent and ineffectual, though, than in my interactions with my children. From the time they were little, I got into the habit of giving them lengthy explanations for everything from how Santa gets around the world in one night to why they need to brush their teeth/go to bed/not hit their brother or sister.

Over the years, my kids’ reaction to all this talking (more like haranguing sometimes) has fallen into one of two camps: either escalating the battle of wills and shouting back or completely tuning me out, like the kids in the Charlie Brown cartoons who only hear “Wah wah wah” when their teacher speaks.

When it comes to speaking and writing, often less is more. One of our most revered American literary icons, for instance, was the terse Ernest Hemingway, whose prose could be likened to a spartan cell in an ancient monastery: no frills. And who among us has not sometimes wished our pastor would share some short kernel of spiritual wisdom instead of droning on and on and repeating himself?

For my part, I am practicing the art of saying less but communicating more.

Enough said.

Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.

Harlan Coben a Cure for the Reluctant Reader

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Myron Bolitar has returned! In his latest novel Home,  Harlan Coben resumes his popular mystery series about the intrepid basketball star turned sports agent turned detective and the cast of colorful characters that peopled Coben’s 10 previous Bolitar novels.

I first became addicted to Coben’s twisting, heart-pounding thrillers with his novel Hold Tight, a story about every modern parent’s nightmare, their children’s online world. The novel asked the question: How far would you go in invading your child’s privacy in order to protect him?

Like one of Coben’s troubled junkies, I was hopelessly hooked on his blend of humor, character development, and endless plot twists. For Christmas that year, my husband gave me a box filled with most of Coben’s early novels, and I immersed myself in the world of Myron Bolitar.

In between his prolific publication of adult thrillers, Harlan Coben managed to dash off a trilogy of novels for teens starring none other than Myron Bolitar’s nephew, Mickey Bolitar. Although I had been aware of their existence and had even given the first novel, Shelter, to my son, I had never thought to read them myself – until Home was published recently.

I realized that the Mickey Bolitar series, which does feature Myron, might be a continuation of  his story and decided I needed to catch up by reading the trilogy. Like his adult books, Coben’s Mickey Bolitar series were instantly riveting, and I devoured them like candy corn.  The character of Mickey is similar to his uncle Myron in that he has a sarcastic sense of humor, a great sense of integrity, and a need to save people that propels him on adventures and puts him in danger.

Parents of teenagers, especially boys, who find their kids loath to pick up a book would do well to check out this teen series by one of the masters of modern crime novels. It is no accident that Harlan Coben has won every major mystery writing award.

Now that I have caught up on the life of one of my favorite fiction characters, Myron Bolitar, I have started to delve into his latest adventure in Coben’s novel Home. I encourage reluctant readers of any age to start on the Harlan Coben oeuvre. I guarantee you won’t be able to put them down.

Penny for Your Thoughts

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The line outside Pfeiffer Hall in downtown Naperville, Illinois, wound around the block. Those queued up, my sister and I among them, excitedly chatted as the line inched forward. What were we all so eagerly standing in line for? A concert? A great sale? A glimpse of an A-list celebrity?

We were all there to see and hear a rock star of the crime novel world: Louise Penny. Penny was making an appearance to launch A Great Reckoning, her latest in a series of best-selling books about Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and the tiny Canadian hamlet of Three Pines, a fictional town that readers around the world wish they could move to.

A few years ago, another of my sisters had introduced me to the charm of that world by recommending Penny’s first novel Still Life. Like many readers, I was hooked by the other-worldly setting and the carefully drawn characters that inhabited that world. I consumed the subsequent novels in relatively quick succession and now find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting each new book.

To call Louise Penny a mystery writer is to minimize the literary quality of her books. For me, the murder and its solution are almost beside the point. What Penny is really portraying are the secrets of the human heart. All of her novels are about human emotions gone wrong, about integrity and courage, about love and steadfastness in a world gone bad. The characters are not just a bunch of eccentric villagers but well-drawn individuals with their own flaws, yearnings, hopes, and fears.

Last night, the author explained that each book hinges on a few lines of poetry that form the core theme of the work. She talked about the difficulty of becoming a writer and described a bit about her process, all of which I find fascinating as a would-be novelist myself. In person, Penny is as intelligent, funny, charming, and real as I would expect her to be based upon the strong narrative voice in her novels.

Upon returning home from the book launch, my sister and I sat on the couch with a glass of wine and talked about all of Penny’s 11 previous novels, trying to remember which one involved which complex story. We checked out websites to refresh our memories and found that Louise Penny has inspired a Harry Potter-like passion on the part of her avid (if slightly older) fans.

As fall approaches, I can think of nothing cozier than curling up in front of the fire with a strong cup of café au lait or glass of wine and diving into the world of Three Pines and the humble genius of Louise Penny.

The Real Harper Lee

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News of Harper Lee’s death last week has made fans of To Kill a Mockingbird both sad and nostalgic about one of the most perfect pieces of literature ever written. In deceptively simple prose, Lee portrays the weighty themes of character, intolerance, compassion, and personal responsibility. Ultimately, the story of a courageous lawyer in the Deep South and his two young children touches upon our universal humanity, and the necessity to “climb into [someone’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee has been an enigmatic figure for the past 60 plus years. Her failure to publish another novel after the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird and her famous reluctance to grant interviews gave her a certain mystique over the years. Last year, however, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a supposedly recently discovered manuscript of hers written before TKAM, Lee’s name was once again in the news.

Many speculated that Lee’s new lawyer was taking advantage of an old woman who had had a stroke and possibly suffered from dementia in order to cash in on her fame. Certainly, the book can’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird and to my mind, was never really meant to be published in its current form. People were also outraged that their beloved character, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as racist in Watchman. 

All this press reawakened my interest in Harper Lee and led me to read her excellent biography Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. Lee’s life story portrays a young girl who did not fit the mold for females in her time and place, an acerbic wit who struggled to fit in during college but eventually found her niche on the University of Alabama’s satirical paper, The Rammer Jammer. It describes her friendship with the egomaniacal Truman Capote, who hurt Lee badly by failing to give her credit for her invaluable assistance on the ground-breaking book In Cold Blood, which she helped research and write.

As most people assume, the beloved character of Atticus Finch is based on Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee. But from Mockingbird,  I learned that the Atticus who so disappointed critics of Go Set a Watchman is much more like A.C. Lee, who held very conservative views on black rights until around 1962, the date To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Furthermore, both Lee’s father and her sister Alice constantly pulled Nelle (her given name) back to Monroeville and into their insular world even as Lee tried to make a writer’s life for herself in New York City. Although she never wanted to be the center of attention, Lee did make significant friendships and even had a platonic affair with a friend’s husband.

Like most human beings, Harper Lee was a complicated individual with strengths and weaknesses. Yet she gave us the great gift of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. And for that, we can be eternally grateful.