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I Just Read: The Handmaid’s Tale

⭐⭐⭐⭐☆

Note: This is a spoiler-free review

The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, is set in the not too distant future (at the time of the book’s publication). Because of the decline in birth rates, the nation of Gilead was born from America with the sole intent of regulating and controlling the population to prevent birth rates from continuing to decline. Each citizen is Gilead has been sanctioned into a single, societal status. All of the remaining, fertile women, have been re-assigned as Handmaids. Because of their ability to procreate, the Handmaid’s rights and freedoms are the most restricted among the entire population. Offred, one of these Handmaids, is not only not allowed to read (like other Giledean women), she must follow a strict daily schedule, must perform public tasks with another Handmaid at all times, refrain from making eye contact, and where a bright red dress everywhere she goes- as a symbol of her status. Her entire worth- and even her life- depends on her ability to get pregnant- yet Offred can remember a different time. When she had a job, friends, a husband, and a daughter. When she had freedom and control over her own life- and body.

As a brief disclaimer- I have not watched the tv show on Hulu. I did not know much about this book going into it- other than it was dystopian novel where women are oppressed. While I can’t say that in my middle school years I was deeply embedded into the whole young-adult dystopian novel trend, I had my fair share of exposure to a few (The Hungar Games, The Maze Runner, Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Gone as examples) I can’t say that I really fell in love with any of them. While I thought a lot of these books feel into the same tropes and characters, there was something that fascinated me about the whole dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre, so I was curious about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian book that was not only written before the whole trend started, but one not specifically geared towards the young adult demographic. Believe me, I was not disappointed.

While most dystopian novels depict a world far into the future (or one with an unknown time period), Margaret Atwood presents a character, Offred, who can remember a time in which everything was normal. This creates a fascinating narrative in which Offred leads us through (little by little) how Gilead formed, slowly but surely. The transition from America to Gilead is both disturbing and all too realistic, creating a greater sense of dread, fear, and isolation, as Offred reveals to us how this future came to be.

Elisabeth Moss (right) stars as Offred in the Hulu original series The Handmaid’s Tale. This Emmy award winning show originally aired in 2017 on the network and is currently on it’s third season.

Outside of the times in which timelines and character’s backstories are revealed to us, the actual plot of the story is mostly complicated in how it reveals information. Something Atwood does flawlessly is jumping around from pre-Gilead days, to Offred in the Red Center, to the present day, with Offred going about her daily routine. This leads to the formation of a rich and fully realized world. Not only do we learn about the philosophies and rules of this society and justifications for why things are the way they are, but we get to learn (through Offred’s eyes) the Handmaid’s- and other character’s- purpose in society, and the oppressive laws and restrictions that society (specifically Handmaids) is subjected to.

In addition to the fully realized ins and outs of this society, something that Atwood does masterfully in her writing is creating this sense of quiet and paranoia. There’s this constant feeling that someone is watching you, and even the simple act of looking someone in the eye could have you dragged off, punished, and put on display for others. All of this oppressive rules and restrictions does lead to some interesting moral questions about how far people are willing to go to keep the population under control, or what lengths people will go to during a growing epidemic?

Let’s talk about the characters. Offred herself isn’t super interesting, but what really makes her a protagonist that we want to follow is how she was a relatively normal women who was forced into this horrific and restrictive new life and society. We want to follow Offred and see this world through her eyes, the different roles people play in this new society, and what’s it’s like being the most “valued” person in this society, and yet being the one most at the whim of others. We learn through Offred how things came to be, and while I won’t spoil it, Offred’s situation becomes a bit more intriguing as compared to other Handmaid’s, and we become more and more engrossed into her story, as she learns more about Gilead. The story is told entirely from first person, which I think creates a rather unique narrative as we never quite know what happens to certain characters, or what people’s true intentions might be. It all comes from Offred’s limited- yet very observant- speculations.

There aren’t many characters besides Offred that we get to know first hand. The only one that gets the most development and backstory, besides Offred, (that we meet) is Moira, who might be my favorite character. She brings some much needed comic relief to the story and, out of the supporting cast, was for me the most interesting and entertaining character.

The Commander (right), played by Joseph Fiennes in the Hulu Original series, plays a summons Offred to his office.

If there are any critiques or negative opinions I had of the book (and there are very, very, few), I thought that the message the book was trying to get across was pretty on the nose. While I understand that most dystopian societies are meant to center around a social anxiety or impending issue in the world (such as global warming or nuclear war), a lot of characters, dialogue, and settings are centered around this theme, or warning, that the book presents with this society. While this aspect could just be a product of it’s time (as in this theme or idea wasn’t as present in media in the 80s) I just feel like a lot of these themes could have been presented more subtly. I also feel like a couple of the characters were not fully realized, especially the Commander. I was often confused how I was supposed to feel about him. While I know that the author wants us to questions what his motives are (as we never get inside his head) I feel like he was kept too ambiguous to the point where it was hard for me to get invested in his actions.

Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solidly entertaining read. If you love dystopian fiction but are sick of the y-adult dystopian fiction novels that have been published to death in recent years, or if you just love entertaining reads with interesting themes and world-building, this is definitely one to check out.

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I Just Read: Beloved

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 stars

Note: This is a spoiler-free review

Beloved, by Toni Morrison, is a fantastical, historical fictional novel that was published in 1987. Beloved tells the story of former African-American slave Sethe. Set after the American Civil War, Sethe managed to escape from the clutches of Sweet Home, a beautiful yet horrifying plantation settlement in Kentucky. Yet, even after 18 years of freedom in Ohio, even after spending each moment of freedom with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver, Sethe cannot seem to escape the horrors of her past. From being reunited with another former slave from Sweet Home, Paul D, to being haunted (in more ways than one) by the ghosts of her past when someone she thought long dead, walks right back into Sethe and Denver’s lives.

As usual, it seems, this was another book that I read for American Literature, as apart of our Southern Gothic unit; however, it’s one that I almost instantly feel in love with. From the rich language, to the fully realized characters, to the vivid settings, to the dark and haunting images and themes the book tackles, all of it makes for a beautiful and immersive reading experience.

This was one book that I was actually glad to have read in a literature class because we could talk about the plot and I could clear up certain story beats that I missed. While the language is very, very rich and poetic, Morrison’s writing style does take some getting used to. She could have these long, poetic, vivid sentences, but buried deep within one of those sentences is a very important plot point that I (more often will not) will miss. So while I appreciate how the language sucks you in, it’s also very complicated to read. It defiantly took at least 50 pages into before I started getting used to the language. It’s definitely one, if your like me, to read with others to discuss plot points, the timeline of certain events, and what certain passages imply.

Another feature of Morrison’s writing is how she jumps around in time. One part of a chapter will be Sethe and Denver talking in the present, and then merely a paragraph later, we will jump to Sethe in the past, escaping from Sweet Home. Again, this is a feature that confused me in the first 50 pages, and while it can get tricky to keep track of where we are, I did get used to it. In fact, that’s one of the books greatest strengths. The way that Morrison reveals information about the characters and their past kept me engaged through the whole story. Rather than revealing an entire character’s backstory in one chapter, little by little she would reveal more and more about the characters (mostly Paul D, Sethe, and Baby Suggs) and their past. The information was never forced either, as the jumping around in time kept me completely immersed in the narrative, as the three characters I mentioned earlier have very dense backstories. It was much more engaging for me to have each character reveal their past little by little rather than just being told how they ended up where they are in an entire chapter.

Paul D (Danny Glover) protects Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) in the 1998 film adaptation of Beloved (dir. by Jonathan Demme.)

I also think that Morrison approached the characterizations very interestingly. When I discussed the book with my classmates, I found that early on in the story, we had very different opinions on the characters. None of the main characters, even until the very end, seem entirely good or entirely evil. Despite some of these characters being victims of slavery, terrible abuses, and great tragedies, we aren’t always sure how to feel about them. We want to feel sympathetic towards them, but at the same time they themselves have done some dark things in the past. Sethe,and Paul D, to be more specific, both have lost people they were close to and endured unimaginable trauma to escape slavery, have also done or said terrible things. Even Denver, who appears quite stubborn and resistant to change at first, does have a good reason to hold onto the past. This create characters- and an experience- that appears all too human.

The final thing I wish to talk about is the fantastical aspect of the story. Without giving too much away, this book does create a fine line between ghosts and other fantastical happenings, and 19th century America. All of this does, however, come together beautifully to create a very dynamic reading experience all revolving around the past and how- in more ways than one- it could come back to haunt you. The final story, as a result, is both tragic (as Morrison does not shy away from the horrors of slavery) while also providing a ray of hope that, while the past is inescapable, there is a way to move forward.

If I didn’t make it clear already- I loved Beloved. While it is a tricky read, I think the rich language, tragic and all too human characters, immersive historical setting, time period, and delicate blending of the fantasy and the reality, makes for a very memorable reading experience. If you think you could handle some of the darker and more violent themes and images, and don’t mind books with denser language, this is one I would definitely check out.

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I Just Read: The Catcher in the Rye

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐☆☆

This is another book – just like The Great Gatsby– that I read for a school assignment, but I’d still like to give my own thoughts and perspective on the writing, characters, and so forth.

This review contains very mild spoilers

To give a brief synopsis, The Catcher in the Rye, written by J.D. Salinger and published in 1951, follows 17-year old Holden Claufield as he is (once again) expelled, this time from an extremely expensive boarding school due to his poor work ethic. Although he is asked to not return after Christmas break, he decides to leave a few days early. Fearful of his mother and father’s reaction after they find out he was expelled, he decides to spend the next few days before the start of Christmas Break in New York City before going home. The rest of the story follows Holden as he journeys from place to place in the city and comes across faces new and old, all the while becoming more estranged and bitter of society.

In my English class, one thing we discussed was how J.D. Salinger was well known for pioneering, or at least popularizing, this stream of consciousness style of writing. The story takes place from a first person perspective, and we as the readers are very much immersed into Holden thoughts, which often diverged considerably from the main plot. Often times Holden will go off on a tangent about something that will ultimately lead to an entirely different tangent about a different subject. I think whether or not you can get into this writing style depends on your tastes. On the one hand, it does get a little frustrating, especially if what he’s talking about distracts from the action or adds little in the way of the narrative. While it did frustrate me at times, especially when I just wanted to get back to the action, a lot of what he did ramble on about, at least the way I saw it, added to his character and gave me some more insight on who he his.

I think what J.D Salinger did which really aided itself to this stream of consciousness narrative is that he kept the plot to a minimum. Nothing of great magnitude really happens in the story, we just follow Holden as he travels around the city and interacts with different people. This gave way for more distractions from the main action since there really isn’t much plotting to begin with. The story, in fact, feels like a little slice of life narrative, albeit it bit more unique than just an everyday occurrence for Holden. There is still the challenge of Holden grappling with his ever growing bitterness for the world and society. Even the new “moral” that he learns by the end of the story is very subtle in how it is conveyed, and it’s not even really too clear if he will follow through with that newfound view of life.

“The Catcher in the Rye” author, J.D. Salinger (1919-2010).

From my class discussions, one of biggest complaints, besides the stream of consciousness style narrative, was with Holden himself. On the one hand, I don’t think he’s a very likable character. Even though he is a jerk I think that we are still supposed to root for him, but I more often than not found myself more frustrated with him. However, the strange thing is the reasons why I don’t like Holden are also the reasons why I relate to him the most: he’s a teenager. He’s hypocritical, he’s bitter towards society, he complains and actively calls out other people for being “phony,” and he has more than a few stints of depression. So while I don’t actively like Holden, he does feel like a genuinely real teenager. If that’s what Salinger’s intent was (to make Holden feel real as opposed to likable) he nailed it.

Because the story was being told from a biased point of view, it was very hard to get a grasp on the various supporting characters; however, I will say that I found Holden’s sister, Phoebe, to be my personal favorite character. I thought her young, sassy attitude was a great addition to the story and a great contrast to Holden’s attitude. This brings me to probably my favorite thing that the book tackles: it’s themes. I won’t give what they are, but it’s done so subtly that if I was not analyzing this book in an English class, I think I would have glossed over them completely. The themes that the book presents are very compelling, and while some might think that the ending is a bit dissatisfying, I rather like how the story is kept open ended on what Holden will chose to do. Something else I enjoyed about the book is that it solemn just tells you how things affect or have affected Holden. There are a couple of heavy hitting moments that one would think Holden would go more into, but he doesn’t. Either Salinger wanted the reader to contemplate themselves how they think those traumatic moments have affected Holden, or maybe because, at the time, those social issues were never even brought up in novels before.

Overall, I think this is one book that I actively enjoyed more because I was able to discuss and analyze it in English class, so I was able to identity and appreciate a lot of the deeper themes and character moments. The book and Holden did actively frustrate me, but I also believe that was Salinger’s intent from the start. I think whether or not you will enjoy this narrative style and a character like Holden depends on your taste, but I would still recommend checking it out. I am glad I read it, but I can’t say I actively enjoyed it as much as, say, The Great Gatsby.

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💕I Just Read: The Great Gatsby

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 (out of 5) stars

In honor of Valentine’s Day (which I know was yesterday), I thought it would only seem fitting to celebrate one of the most romantic days of the year, with one of literature’s most famous love triangles in one of the world’s most famous novels: The Great Gatsby.

Published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), The Great Gatsby tells the story of Jay Gatsby through the eyes of a young bond salesman and war veteran, Nick Carraway, who has just moved to the West Egg of Long Island. There, Nick reunites with his wealthy cousin, Daisy, and her husband, Tom Buchanan, who live on the East Egg side of the city, reserved for those born into wealth. Nick soon discovers how Tom and Daisy carry some secrets of their own, while also becoming more and more curious about his reclusive neighbor, Jay Gatsby. It is not too long until Nick actually befriends his affluent neighbor, who is as lavish and extravagant as he is mysterious and secretive. Gatsby, despite throwing many extravagant parties, is the subject of much gossip and rumors, inspiring Nick to spend more and more time with this man and learning from others as much as he can. From this, Nick, and the audience, soon discover Gatsby’s greater goals and intentions, through his connection with Nick as well as the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, and many more characters.

(Warning there will be very, very mild spoilers from here on): First of all, I should mention that I read this book for my English class, and not just for pleasure. Having said that, I did really enjoy this book and learning about the author and time period from which this book takes place. That is why I still would like to share my general thoughts on the story, writing style, characters, etc.

First, I would like to talk about the plot/story. The book is relatively short, being only a little over 200 pages. Yet, I didn’t feel that there any pacing issues, and this might be because it was a relatively simple story. While Nick is the narrator, it is Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom who drive most of the action, so we only see and learn about these character’s and their motivations as Nick learns it. As previously mentioned, there really isn’t much plot to the story up until that last third. It mostly follows Gatsby in his quest to reunite with his former lover while he and other characters struggle to keep up their images while also keeping their secrets and relationships in balance. For me, the story really was the least interesting part, compared to the characters, themes, and rich, descriptive language, up until the last third where everything really took a left, dramatic turn.

Leonardo Dicaprio starred as the infamous Jay Gatsby in the 2013 film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann.

Going into the characters, I think that the structure of the novel made most of the characters far more intriguing than, if say, the story was told from Gatsby’s point of view. Nick, despite being the narrator, is relatively uninteresting. This never possed a problem for me though both because Nick being used as a catalyst for the audience makes Gatsby himself far more intriguing. Since we could only learn things about Gatsby through Nick’s eyes, it was often difficult for me to tell if I could trust him or not, and what his true motivations and desires were. While I had a good grasp on him by the end of the story, I still wanted to know more about Gatsby’s past, his thoughts, and his life. While this may seem like a negative statement, I think the fact that I got so much and still wanted to know more is very telling about what a great character Fitzgerald created.

Anyways, while Nick is not the most interesting characters, Fitzgerald does make it clear early on that Nick is the type of person who mostly listens and observes, which is why he learns so much. Much of his purpose also lies in his relationship to Gatsby since Nick acts as this middle ground to help Gatsby reunite with his former lover. This was probably my least favorite part of the story. The love triangle wasn’t done bad or anything like that, in fact, I like how either way the relationships weren’t so cut and dry and seemed far more complex than just a “who does she love?” solution. I just found that part of the story to be less interesting than, say, the last third. I won’t give it way, but the story takes two really sharp turns, one that carries a lot of dramatic tension through the ending, which I could honestly say was really unexpected and tragic.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (pictured above) most famous literary works include The Great Gatsby, as well as Tender is the Night (1934), This Side of Paradise (1920), and The Beuatiful and Damned (1922).

Let’s talk about the supporting cast now. Similar to Gatsby, much of the supporting cast is presented as one thing, but whose motivations and goals also become unclear and raise questions. At first, I didn’t really like Tom that much. He just seemed like a total caricature (think Billy Zane’s character from Titanic) to me that I could not stand him. As the story progressed though, there seemed to be this underlying humanization that made his actions did not seem as one note. I especially liked the scenes between him and Gatsby and the interesting ideas that constantly shined through in their rivalry. I often think people overlook Jordan Baker, who I really like. From a historical perspective, she seems like a complete 180 from what was expected of women back then. She enjoys her lavish lifestyles, but also likes to play sports and doesn’t rely on a man to carry her through life. Wolfsheim (despite being a major stereotype of the time) is still a fun and crooked character that I’m still not so sure how to feel about. One character I really didn’t like was Daisy. She just seemed unintentionally boring and I didn’t really draw a connection to her. Some of the choices she made were either confusing or downright frustrated me.

The best part of The Great Gatsby for me was the writing. Even the simple act of two characters saying goodbye was so descriptive and atmospheric that I felt I was being put right into this world. The language, at times, was so poetic and descriptive that you could find so many hidden meanings and symbols behind the simplest of things. Why is the light green? Why mention the clock? Why choose to describe the “valley of ashes” this way? Fitzgerald was so clever in knowing what to describe and how to describe it to put me right into this lavish world with these extravagant homes and people. He also knew what to omit so as to keep me asking questions and to let my own mind fill in the gaps. Even the simplest gestures that characters took carried so much weight and purpose behind them. Nothing about the characters or setting was just told bluntly to you. The majority of impressions I got about people was from the way they were simply described. I just loved how detailed and atmospheric the writing was.

I Just Read: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐☆

So while I didn’t technically just read this play, as I took it out from the library over a month ago, I did just complete it. One aspect of my new blog is book reviews, which will include dramatic scripts, as is the case today. The first play I read in my quest to become a better writer and to read more often, is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf published by Edward Albee in 1962.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf follows the story of middle-aged married couple Martha and George, who have just returned to their New England home from a University faculty party late at night. Martha has invited a younger married couple, Nick and Honey, to their house after the party for a drink. Nick, who serves as a new biology professor on campus, and Honey then must endure an entire night of “fun and games” with this couple as George and Martha proceed to peel back the surface of their own lives and the lives of this young couple.

This story is much less plot-driven as it is character driven. A lot of the character’s motivations and secrets are revealed through long conversations between two or more characters. This, for me, both helped and hindered my opinion of the play. On the one hand, this greatly affected the pacing of the story because there was so little story. For the first act into the second act of the play, it felt like nothing was really happening or being developed. Things about the characters would slowly be revealed through long conversations, and at times this made the story really drag on for me and leave me frustrated that not much was happening.

From the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols. From left to right, Nick (George Segal), Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), and George (Richard Burton).

With that being said, how the play really benefited with being so character driven, is that I found these characters to be super fascinating. Martha, the campus president’s daughter, and George, an associate professor of history, are constantly at each other’s throats, trying to both embarrass each other and get the upper hand. While it did get rather tedious listening to them consistently insult each other, I think that was the point. Both George and Martha seem as though they want to “win” at this game they call their marriage. It’s rather compelling and invigorating trying to figure out what George and Martha will pull out of their sleeve next, and what embarrassing relic from their past they will use to humiliate the other. It comes to the point when in the final act when they both start insulting Nick, and their motivations aren’t even that clear anymore. It makes them seem all the more human. Even Nick and Honey, who seem like a simple and rather dull young married couple, are discovered during this one night to have their own secrets beneath the surface of their seemingly innocent marriage.

Overall, I found the character’s to be very compelling, between the way both of their marriages are exposed for what they are, to the large, twisted, and even quite depressing, end result of all of this (which I had to look up afterward to fully understand), to the clashes of tension between characters. What really bogs this story down for me is the pacing which can often get tedious as we have to wait through long conversations before all that much is really discovered.