It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! – and here is what I’ve been up to:

I posted A Discussion of Two Novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood.  It’s a discussion, rather than a review, because I tried to keep the focus on the narrative techniques & away from any major plot points.   So much of the fun of reading these novels comes out of piecing the stories together. To give too much away would ruin the genius of the books.  Both are fabulous reads and I hope I was able to do them justice.

Pauline Melville had an article up in the Guardian UK with her Top 10 list of revolutionary tales.  I posted an excerpt that provides some interesting insight to her latest novel.  Which led me to ask: “How much you want to know about the book you’re reading?  There’s a poll up – so please check it out and let me know your thoughts.

As part of Arianna Huffington’s evil plan for complete global domination:  The Huffington Post has a new Books section (and it’s about time!).  There’s a nifty feature where a blogger can automatically have comments they make to an article posted directly to their blog.  I did a little test run with Beth Kephart’s article on the new FTC Guidelines, entitled Do Book Bloggers Make a Difference?.

I also finished Saint Peter’s Fair, my first book in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters, and have started The Virgin in the Ice.  Since finding these books is hit and miss, I’m reading them completely out of order.  It would be ridiculous to try to finish the series before reviewing it, so I’ll be posting my opinion of the series so far in the next day or so. I’ve just received Into Great Silence from Netflix, a documentary on a French Monastery.  I love when everything falls into place like that.

Happy Monday Everyone!  Don’t forget to stop by at J. Kaye’s Blog to see more of what people are reading.

A Discussion of Two Novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake (print) & The Year of the Flood (audio)

Note – One of the pleasures of reading Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood comes from the discoveries and revelations that happen throughout.  It would be wrong, and irresponsible as a reviewer, for me to ruin that.  So this is a strange (and ridiculously long) review.  Perhaps it is less a review and more of an enthusiastic endorsement.   Preferring to err on the side of caution, I’ve provided almost no plot summary and only one very small excerpt.  What I hope I have retained and conveyed is my admiration for these books, as well as what I feel makes them so special.

the yearoftheflood.cvrMargaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood revisits the dystopian world first introduced in Oryx and Crake.  It is a future that appears all too possible, as Ms. Atwood follows current science to its logical conclusion. In her brave new world the class and wealth divide has been sharply drawn between those living in the Compounds (private, gated communities) and those locked out in the Pleeblands (poor, urban centers).  Global corporations – called the CorpSeCorps – control everything. Genetically altered bio-forms and foods are an insidious part of daily life.  Religious cults, such as the God’s Gardeners, predict the coming of a waterless flood and attract converts from all levels of society.  Read together, these two novels succeed in creating a beautifully realized, if deeply disturbing, vision of what could be.

And yet  this vision is anything but bleak and depressing.  Ms. Atwood avoids the gloom & doom by enlisting engaging and sympathetic narrators.  Jimmy (also called Snowman) is the endearing slacker raised in the Compounds who told us the original, strange story of Oryx and of Crake. In contrast, The Year of the Flood is narrated by two women: Toby, who survived the worst that the Pleeblands could throw at a person to become an unlikely elder of the God’s Gardeners.  And Ren, a sweet girl raised as both  a God’s Gardener and a compound brat, who eventually chooses to become a dancer at the legendary Pleeblands’ sex club Scales & Tails.  It gives little away to tell you that all three survive the waterless flood – in actuality a global pandemic – each for different reasons and in different circumstances.  At the end of the world Margaret Atwood manages to provide her readers with hope.

Admittedly this hope isn’t as apparent in Oryx and Crake, which on first reading can be unsatisfying.  (Particularly when it was first released and before anyone expected there to be a second book).  I felt that it left too many unanswered questions and blank spaces.   Imagine putting together a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and realizing you only have eight hundred of the pieces.  Sure the picture is there, but only partially.  These holes in the picture are a difficulty intrinsic to true first person narrators.  Jimmy is a child of the Compounds who never fits in.  His knowledge of the Pleeblands is that of a rich kid slumming.  He is his friend Crake’s intellectual inferior and has an incomplete understanding of what Crake has done.  Jimmy does not (cannot) explain the who’s, how’s and why’s.  He’s limited to relating the end Oryx and Crakeresult, fulfilling the role which Crake assigned to him.  His narration of Oryx and Crake is a tortured attempt to figure out what the hell happened.  In the end Jimmy can only tell us what he knows… which, we ultimately discover, isn’t all that much.  While beautifully written and absorbing, Oryx and Crake alone can be frustrating.

The Year of the Flood fills in many, though not all, of those pieces of information missing from Oryx and Crake.  The reader is still restricted to one narrator’s knowledge and experiences at a time, but both Toby and Ren move further towards bridging the gaps in our understanding.  Whereas Jimmy knew the Compounds best, Toby knows the Pleeblands.  Her main contribution is an intimate knowledge of the God’s Gardeners, which plays an integral part in the larger overall story and which Jimmy only had a peripheral awareness of. As an Eve (the Gardeners’ leaders are called Adams and Eves), it is she who relays the history and politics of the group. It is also her Pleeblands past, always close by, which provides the main source of suspense in the novel.

The most interesting of the three narrators, in my mind, is Ren.  She straddles the line between both worlds, wandering around like some contemporary version of Candide.  Everyone underestimates her, including herself.  She is the closest Atwood comes to a third person narrator (and it’s not all that close) – because she is always a little bit apart from and outside of the inner circles where decisions get made.  At the same time, she is in many ways the common link between people and stories.  Often she is the key component in setting events into motion – willing the direction they will take.  I found her character surprising and intriguing.  Attributing her survival of the waterless flood to dumb luck seems a bit disingenuous.  Ren has the gift of taking the bad situations that happen to her and turning them.  Her seeming innocence and fragility may very well be her survival tool, like the bio-engineered kudzu-moth caterpillars Toby finds in her garden:  “In one of those jokey moves so common in the first years of gene-splicing, their designer gave them a baby face at the front end, with big eyes and a happy smile, which makes them remarkably difficult to kill.”

Telling a story from multiple perspectives isn’t new.  Faulkner did it, as did others.  But seldom has it been accomplished so thoroughly and completely as in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.  The reader is only allowed to know as much, or as little as each of the narrators.  And the narrators have only their own, narrow perspective on any and all incidents.  So it is the readers who discover and make connections that no one character, alone, has the ability to do.  That is in a large part what makes these novels so enjoyable.  To this,  Atwood has added yet another layer.  The God’s Gardeners are a religion and as such they have both sermons and hymns.  Both are included as part of The Year of the Flood.  The sermons are given by Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners.  They provide insight, as well as comfort.  (They also provide the chapter divisions and titles).  Atwood strikes just the right tone, sometimes profound and sometimes ridiculous.  They lend the religion authenticity.  Later in the book they allow us a window into what goes on in the Edencliff Rooftop Garden (home of the God’s Gardeners), even after the flood.  Even after our narrators are no longer there.

I was very happy to learn that Margaret Atwood is not finished with this world she has created.  In a recent interview with the L.A. Times she stated that should she live long enough, there will be another book.  (It’s not an idle concern by the way…  just ask anyone who has invested the better part of the last two decades reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series).  The implication is that it will explore the same time period as the first two novels, this time from the perspective of the group that forms the more bio-terrorist (though that may be too severe) arm of the God’s Gardeners:  Mad Adam.  Many of the members of Mad Adam ended up in Crake’s lab working on his Paradice Project, which provides the tie-in to Oryx and Crake.  Apparently there is more to this fascinating story, and I am glad to have another reason to wish Margaret Atwood many, many years of good health.  As Adam One would say, let us put light around her.

 

Book vs. Audio:  I first listened to The Year of the Flood as a download from Audibles.com, and I highly recommend it.  I am told there is both a UK and a U.S. version – mine was the U.S. version which is read by three distinct readers.  There are two women (for Toby & Ren) and a man who reads Adam One’s sermons – all of whom do a fabulous job.  The only sour note is the hymns.  They are performed with music, and the production is poor.  At times it was difficult to understand the lyrics, and to be completely honest I came to dread them.  But overall, the main readings were so well done that I was happy that this was my first experience of the novel and highly recommend it.  Afterwards, I bought the hardcover for a more careful reading.

The Year of the Flood is the companion novel and, at least in a small part, the sequel to Oryx and Crake.   I don’t think this has been explained very well by the media.  Atwood manages to intertwine the two stories so perfectly that it seems impossible that they were written separately.   I encourage anyone who intends to read the one, to read both.  And while it is true that the order they can be read in is somewhat interchangeable, I recommend reading Oryx and Crake first.  The books share the same ending, but that ending is taken a little bit farther in The Year of the Flood.

It’s Monday? What Am I Reading?

Another Monday is upon us…  *yawn*.

Fortunately, this week should be a bit more exciting than most:  October is the month of book awards!

  • October 6th – 2009 Man Booker Prize Winner Announced
  • October 8th – Nobel Prize for Literature Announced
  • October 13th – 20 Finalists for the National Book Award are Announced (come on guys – you couldn’t come up with something snappier???)
  • Also, we missed the Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist (thank you to KevinfromCanada for making us aware of Canada’s prize.  It seems all of North America needs to work on marketing our literary awards).

The winners of The National Book Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize will be announced in November.

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Amphibian by Carla Gunn

As for my personal reading – I’m hoping to post reviews for Dan Simmon’s Drood and Amphibian by Carla Gunn this week.  Both were great, though very different, books.

I’m in the middle of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, which is better than even I had hoped (and I had some high hopes for this after reading Oryx & Crake).   I know the reviews keep saying that this book can be read as a stand alone, and in its way it can.  But I very much recommend reading Oryx & Crake, either before or after The Year of the Flood, because it adds another layer to the story that it would be a shame to miss.Eating Air by Pauline Melville

Also, I’ve just begun reading Eating Air by Pauline Melville.  (This is a review copy I requested from the publisher, Telegram Books).  It’s out in the UK, but I have no idea when it will be released in the States.  I’ve been picking it up and carrying it around all week because it makes me so happy.  The dust jacket is beautiful and the book itself is the perfect proportions (I’m a big fan of short, squat books).  And the writing is stunning!  Hopefully, I’ll have a review up soon.  For now, here’s a teaser from the book’s first two paragraphs –

I want to tell the story of these extraordinary events without drawing attention to myself or implicating myself in any way.  I was involved only in the most tangential way, I can assure you – more by association than anything else.  These days it is possible to be locked up for even hinting that terrorism can be glorious or for having the wrong friends and courts don’t take into account the law of unintended consequences.  So it’s sotto voce for me.  To be on the safe side I have to present the truth as fiction.

I prefer to write in cafés.  I move around.   The Head in the Sand café in Camden Town is my current haunt.  Every morning the proprietor brings me a glass of rum steeped in hot peppers, a black coffee, two dishes of grilled peanuts and my newspaper.  I wear dark glasses with the right, coffin-shaped lens knocked out to make sure, in these lean times, that no-one steals my food.  The place is a little down-at-heel but I like the sludge-olive décor and those trendily scuffed wooden floors, bentwood chairs and the menu chalked on a blackboard behind the counter.  Who am I?  I come from Surinam.  My complexion is cinnamon.  I am as slim as Barack Obama.  My style is that of a graveyard dandy; black hat, black coat and a silver cane – it’s possible to dress like this in London without attracting undue attention.  Oh… and I think highly of myself which is always good for one’s health…

Please don’t forget to go to J. Kaye’s Book Blog to see what the rest of her friends & followers are reading.  Happy Monday! *strrrretttch*

It’s Another Monday! What Am I Reading?*

All these Mondays are starting to add up…  So what’s coming up on BookSexy for everyone to look forward to?

First, check out the  review of Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice that was posted over the weekend.  It’s a wonderful October read, especially if you have a YA in your life going through Harry Potter & Twilight withdrawals.  It’ll stop the shakes – promise!

And I just downloaded The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood from Audible.com!  That TBR stack is just getting too high – so I thought this book might be a better use of my commute than BBC podcasts.   To be honest, I’m interested in seeing how this goes.  The last “serious” novel I listened to was His Illegal Self by Peter Carey, which was definitely slow going at times (and a bit of a downer).  I usually save my downloads for lighter fare… but we will see.

Amphibian by Carla Gunn is my current reading read (and the next book from my Brooklyn Book Festival haul ).  I’m about 25 pages in and moving along nicely.  The story is told in the first person by Phineas William Walsh, a young environmentalist who’s about to go Greenpeace on his fourth grade class.  Gunn has perfectly re-created the feeling of being trapped in the car with a  precocious 9 year old.  And the physical book, itself, is a pleasure and a prime example of why the transition to digital books will be a slow one.   My copy is a paperback with bright, glossy covers and tightly bound.  The first page you open to is a black and white photo of a tree frog (which features prominently in the plot).  The paper used has a slightly corrugated feel to it, and the typeset is in Legacy & Legacy Sans.  These are details I don’t always notice, but I had to give props to the Coach House Press for a beautiful product.

Happy Monday everyone!

*It’s Monday!  What Am I Reading? is a meme originating from J. Kaye’s Book Blog.  Please check out what other bloggers are reading here.

It’s Monday! What Am I Reading?*

It’s Monday and while my stack of books isn’t necessarily going down (which actually makes me very happy) – progress is being made!  Last week I finished reading and reviewed Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow.  I highly recommend it… which is a huge relief! I’ve been reading a lot International literature (mostly British and European) lately and was beginning to worry about my lack of excitement over contemporary American authors.

This week will be an ambitious one.  I’ll be finishing up The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers and am beginning Amphibian by Carla Gunn… both books I picked up at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  Moers is a German author and Gunn is from Canada (see what I mean about the International lit?).

And if you read my interview at Bookduck for Book Blogger Appreciation Week you already know how much I am looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood – due out…. TOMORROW!? (Umm, I just looked that up on Amazon).  Another book added to the stack.

Homer &L angley by E.L. DoctorowThe Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers

the yearoftheflood.cvr*It’sMonday!  What Am I Reading? is a meme originating from J. Kaye’s Book Blog.  Please check out what other bloggers are reading here.