Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “dystopian literature”

CommanderStrikeher’s #CBR4 Review #48: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Somehow, I had never even heard of this book until last year’s Cannonball Read.  The premise is intriguing.  In the not-too-distant future, a Puritanical religious group has overthrown the United States and formed the Republic of Gilead.  Women are no longer allowed to read, and are divided into classes based on their ability to breed.  The main character, Offred, is a Handmaid.  Basically she is the mistress of a powerful Commander and once a month she has to have sex with him while laying in the arms of his wife.  If a child is born, the Commander and his wife will keep it, and she will be sent to a new household and attempt to do it again. Sex is strictly for procreation.  There is no romance, and certainly no illicit love affairs.  There are public executions, and the bodies of priests, nuns, and doctors are left to rot along the town walls.

Offred finds a carving inside her closet that was left by the previous Handmaid.  It says, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which means “Don’t let the bastards get you down”.  The previous Handmaid must not have heeded her own advice, because she hung herself.  This story is bleak, but it is engrossing.  I couldn’t put this one down.  This one is a classic for a reason.

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic or dystopian books this year: Mockingjay, World War Z and Robopocalypse.  However, this was by far the most terrifying.  In a society where women who have been raped are forced to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds to get an abortion, or doctors have the right to not tell the mother if her pregnancy may kill her, this story doesn’t seem too farfetched.

5/5 Stars

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Petalfrog’s #CBR4 Review #51: The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

Description from Amazon:

A seven-year-old girl puts a nail gun to her grandmother’s neck and fires. An isolated incident, say the experts. The experts are wrong. Across the world, children are killing their families. Is violence contagious? As chilling murders by children grip the country, anthropologist Hesketh Lock has his own mystery to solve: a bizarre scandal in the Taiwan timber industry. Hesketh has never been good at relationships: Asperger’s Syndrome has seen to that. But he does have a talent for spotting behavioral patterns and an outsider’s fascination with group dynamics. Nothing obvious connects Hesketh’s Asian case with the atrocities back home. Or with the increasingly odd behavior of his beloved stepson, Freddy. But when Hesketh’s Taiwan contact dies shockingly and more acts of sabotage and child violence sweep the globe, he is forced to acknowledge possibilities that defy the rational principles on which he has staked his life, his career, and, most devastatingly of all, his role as a father.

This book was super interesting. Described on Amazon as part dystopian, part psychological thriller, this book certainly fits the bill. I tend to lean more towards psychological thrillers based in crime, so this was a definite interesting one for me to read. I thought it was an interesting narrative choice to tell the whole book from Hesketh’s (first person) perspective. Another author (Stephen King, for example), would have told it from multiple perspectives, given that the events of killer kids and suicidal saboteurs were occurring throughout the world. I think this helped to really isolate you into Hesketh’s world, which by itself is somewhat isolated due to the nature of his Asperger’s. He’s definitely an interesting character, and I enjoyed his perspective (even when it was sometimes a bit odd).

I do wish this book had more of the psychological thriller piece… even though the world is essentially fallen apart, I didn’t feel much sense of desperation or urgency NOR hope. This was kind of a weird experience — yes all these awful things were happening, but it was all so matter of fact. I kept wondering how the book would end and was very interested in continuing to read, so that was a positive. However, the end felt unresolved to me, and I also didn’t fully understand it, but perhaps that’s the nature of dystopian literature? There is no good answer in the end…

I do recommend this book in the end as I was engaged throughout and I enjoyed Hesketh and some of the curious events in the story.

I received this book from Netgalley. This book will be released on Jan 8th and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

Read more of my reviews at my blog!

Baxlala’s #CBR4 Review #29: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Oh, hey, I finished this about a million years ago and then forgot to write about it, which has pretty much been the case for the past, oh, FOREVER.

Anyway, have you guys read this book? Because you should. Especially if you like dystopian novels and WHO DOESN’T, amiright? Yes, I’m right.

I first read this book before I even knew what dystopia meant and have read it about once a year since. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I find something comforting about reading stories in which really fucked up shit happens to people in the near or not-so-near future, as if by me reading it, I can STOP whatever it is from happening. Maybe that’s my superpower. YOU DON’T KNOW.

Anyway (again). The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the future, in a time of great unrest (standard). Things were getting super shitty for ladies, what with the violence and the rape and whatnot, PLUS ALSO everyone started having trouble getting knocked up, no matter how much sex they had, and the ones who DID get knocked up sometimes had monster babies (called “shredders” in the novel) because of CHEMICAL WARFARE or some junk, and so The Men In Charge decided what everyone really needed was order, in the form of a regimented system of sexytimes. And AS PER USUAL, women drew the short straw and had to live under the power of the men in their lives, called the Commanders (SERIOUSLY).

Offred, our narrator, is a Handmaid, living in the somewhat newly formed Republic of Gilead, in a home with her Commander, his Wife, a Maid, and a Cook. The Commander is the only Dude in the house (except for Nick, the Chauffeur, but he doesn’t count as a Dude because he doesn’t own any Womens yet) and is completely in charge of his harem of ladies. Only it’s not REALLY a harem because he can only have sex with his Handmaid and only at specific times and only under SUPER FUCKED UP CIRCUMSTANCES because sex is dirty and bad and degrades women and is only I REPEAT ONLY for the procreation of the species. Geez, pay attention.

Saying any more about this novel would rob you of the experience of reading it and I just won’t be party to that kind of spoilertude. But I cannot recommend The Handmaid’s Tale enough. I mean, I’ve read it at least 15 times and I just keep reading it because I NEVER WANT IT TO BE OVER. That’s how awesome it is.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is terrifying, but it’s like…a good terrifying? Where you’re happy that you’re not living in that world? I guess? Just read this? Please?

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #21 Divergent

Maybe I was in a bad mood. Maybe I was in a cynical one. Maybe reading it while looking out over the pristine reflections of Glacier’s Lake MacDonald as part of a nerdy quartet of readers (including my wife, and a friend I’ve had since Pre-School), but for whatever reason I felt supremely let down by Divergent.

Try as I might, I could not shake the sensation that I was reading a mash-up of popular other works. It was as if author Veronica Roth took the influences of The GiverHarry Potter, and The Hunger Games and squeezed them all into one volume: children assume career roles at a young age (in this case based on the apparently exclusionary values of selflessness, honesty, friendship, intelligence or bravery), a sorting ceremony defines their lives, they are banned from association with rival factions, they must train and be ranked, friendships lead to dangerous adventures and to be unlike the others is to risk everything. I never managed to fully suspend my disbelief and appreciate the story for the fun of it, it was like looking at the blueprints of Versailles and never the building itself.

More problematic is how vague and undefined the heroine is. (While writing this I had to google her name.) Beatrice Prior seems to hold the fate of her world in her hands, but is plagued by far more doubt than her Fantasy-world predecessors (Hermione and Katniss). But that doubt is never really dealt with or examined as indicative of her character. Instead her reflections offer a superficial glimpse at her point of view before throttling ahead to dwell on another action-packed training sequence. And as the story breaks from education and training into full scale rebellion, the action blurs together so quickly that what happens (and why) isn’t altogether clear.

I can see how a lot of readers can latch on to the story (hopefully it’s pulled a few students away from the Xbox this summer): the action, the subtle growth of romantic affection (even if the foreshadowing gives away the endgame early on) and the feeling of partisanship and ideological entrenchment all too common in today’s society. Except I don’t buy that entirely either. Roth’s characters seem to willingly accept that they must be beholden to one value and living in accordance with that value at all costs (even the heroine Beatrice, is told early on that she could be smart or brave or selfless, the idea of being ALL isn’t even considered, Beatrice herself sees this as a flaw not an asset). To be sure there are ecological mavens and right-to-life die-hards, but I also know eco-fiends who get a giddy thrill out of Monster Trucks and fundamentalists who cordially engage with people of all faiths and walks of life. Taking the “which faction do you belong to quiz” at the back, I could not possibly limit myself to one. Philosophy is not a black-and-white affair, nor does the silent majority in our world live that way. Even in the future, I have to believe that our human will to individuality would rapidly explode any such utopian suggestion before it could go wrong.

I give credit to Roth for capturing the interest of readers around the country, for inspiring conversations and fandom a new. Any book that can inspire this much passion among fans (and detractors like me) is notable. But a popular mash-up does not a classic make.

pyrajane’s review #26: 1984 by George Orwell

There’s nothing like reading about dystopia to make you overwhelmed and ready to ignore everything so you can pretend to be happy.

It’s also interesting and a bit creepy to pick up a book you though you had already read only to realize the ideas have become so commonplace that you’ve sort of tricked yourself into thinking you had read it.  There’s a reason 1984 is on Must Read lists and why it’s also banned in many places.

Pick it up for a read or a reread and decide if ignorance is bliss.

Read more of my confusion, apathy, and awareness over here.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #14, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

“I have my own dying empire to contend with, and I do not wish for any other.” –Lenny Abramov

It is the fate of every narcissist to believe he is the last gasp of a dying empire.

I started noticing this human tendency for the apocalyptic while growing up in an evangelical church. For those of you who did not grow up thus, here is the only piece of information relevant to this article: at pretty much every single point in the Church’s history,  its members have been convinced  they were living in the end times. It took me a good fifteen years and a lot of late nights spent worrying about the Rapture to figure this out. In fact, one of the better aspects of apostasy was leaving behind the ominous pronouncements every time there was so much as a tremor in the trans-Asiatic belt. Or so I thought. As I found out, secular progressive America is no less given to narcissistic prediction of its own doom, but, being liberals, we do it in as elitist of a way as possible.

Which brings us to the book. Now, I’ve never been much for Shteyngart’s slightly manic style of writing. He tends to get so caught up in the accessories of the societies he imagines that he loses the plot for its details. Nonetheless, its catchy opening line (“Today I’ve made a major decision. I’m never going to die”) in combination with its dystopian setting and aesthetically pleasing cover convinced me to give it a shot.

Turns out, the same things that annoy me about most of Shteyngart’s fiction are just as prevalent in this book. The glee he takes in naming everything in his fictionally constructed world is especially tiresome – he frequently loses the story in the chaos of his shiny new toys, the most notable of which are the ubiquitous äppäräti, the smartphone-like devices that broadcast everything from an individual’s credit score to their “fuckability” ratings. The plot, such as it is, involves Lenny, a nebbish Luddite that works as a salesman in the Life Extension department of a transnational corporation (there is of course a lengthy title for both his position and the corporation, but I can’t face looking it up again), and Eunice, a Korean-American girl 15 years his junior. Eunice is a complete product of her overexposed generation – a heady combination of blithe and vulnerable, an emotionally guarded open book, speaking in text-cronymns and shopping constantly at online stores with names like Ass Luxury. Lenny, on the other hand, is apparently the only man left on Earth who still reads actual books. It should surprise no one that Lenny is clearly a stand-in for Shteyngart himself. Lenny and Eunice are thrown together during the last months before America’s ultimate collapse, and their unlikely love story forms the axis around which the story turns. I use the term “love story” lightly, because there’s really nothing about love in here. Lenny’s treatment of Eunice typifies the Nice Guy™ school of beleaguered manipulation. The climax of their love story is when she considers, just for a moment, reading Lenny’s dusty old copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I am not kidding.

The reason the love story aspect reads so false is because, let’s get real: the story is about neither Eunice nor Lenny. Eunice and Lenny are just puppets, a convenient venue for Shteyngart to display writing like this:

“Remember this, Lenny… develop a sense of nostalgia for something, or you’ll never figure out what’s important.”

This is only one of many examples that conspire to make the whole thing read like a commencement speech for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I once got a great piece of advice from one of my writing instructors: he told me that most of what I will consider my best writing should end up in the trash. Had Shteyngart a better editor, they would have given him this same advice, told him to stop pontificating wildly and invest that energy in drawing more complete characters. But they didn’t, and even more curiously, most critics didn’t seem to mind. Super Sad True Love Story, despite its lazy love story and dystopian setting that added absolutely nothing to the genre, made a lot of critics’ “Best Of” lists.

I have a theory of why that is, and it’s explained partially in this quote from Shteyngart himself, from a New York Times Magazine interview about the ubiquity of social media: “Silence has been destroyed, but also the idea that it’s important to learn how another person thinks, to enter the mind of another person. The whole idea of empathy is gone. We are now part of this giant machine where every second we have to take out a device and contribute our thoughts and opinions.” Putting aside for a moment the illogic of this statement, considering the fact that social media platforms exist solely so we can read another person’s (albeit 140 character long) thoughts, it is clear that this attitude affected Shteyngart’s entire premise for Super Sad True Love Story. There’s a reason that Lenny is the only man left who reads books. And there’s a reason that Eunice is constantly on her äppärätus projecting her manufactured self to the world. It’s because Super Sad True Love Story isn’t a love story at all, it’s a metaphor for how Shteyngart views his relationship to society. Clearly, Lenny represents the last of a nobler species, and Eunice represents a species hastening towards its own demise. The problem is, the principle on which this analogy depends is a fundamentally flawed one, because it rests precariously on the assumption that social media will slowly drive out more traditional forms of media like books and newspapers, until our entire culture exists only in tweets. Jonathan Franzen made the same monotonous point a few weeks ago, a point that was brilliantly contested in this article from the New Yorker. Money quote:

“Two pernicious fallacies embedded in criticism of Twitter—and, by extension, blogs, tumblrs, and GIFs of catbots who kill with laser eyes—are that non-traditional forms of expression can wipe out existing ones, and that these forms are somehow impoverished. The variables unique to the Internet—hyperlinks, GIFs, chat, comments—have enabled new writing voices with their own distinct syntaxes. But we are not dealing with fungible goods—the new forms will never push out older ones because they’re insufficiently similar. You might overdose on unicorn GIFs and go to bed too tired to read ‘Freedom,’ but unicorn GIFs will never replace ‘Freedom.'”

Shteyngart’s book bewails our cultural obsession with projecting ourselves to the masses, and predicts it will lead to our unsubtle doom. But here’s the thing: projecting ourselves for mass consumption is not a new phenomenon. This is also what makes Franzen’s point that serious writers “don’t like to yak about [themselves]” so laughable. Because what are most books, if not an author’s desperate attempts to define himself and the world around him, and to find an audience to validate him? We’ve always been narcissistic and needy creatures. Only the medium that has changed. Shteyngart and Franzen both make the same mistake in confusing the vehicle with the product. In the article above, the interviewer points out that all futurists predict the death of reading, and Shteyngart responds with the following point: “Maybe we’re all wrong and there’s going to be a huge comeback in 10 years where all the kids are going to drop their iKindles and start reading like crazy. ‘Dude, did you read the latest Turgenev? It’s so sick.'” Here’s my question: what does he think kids are doing on their “iKindles,” if not reading?

Kindles might be destroying the traditional publishing industry, but you have to be a fool to argue that they’re leading to a decline in reading. Similarly, Twitter and Facebook aren’t destroying more traditional forms of communication – in fact, I would argue they are promoting them more than ever before. I have learned of at least 15 new books I had never heard of since undertaking this project. Twitter regularly leads me to articles and journalists I would probably not have discovered otherwise. Are these new forms of communication changing industries like publishing and print journalism, sometimes for the worse? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it’s changing communication for the worse. It’s just changing it, and in many cases, it’s making it more democratic. You don’t have to have a literary agent to get published anymore – all you really need it a Twitter account.

At heart, I think that’s why many writers like Franzen and Shteyngart have a problem with social media. To them, it is only for people who aren’t “serious writers,” aka people who aren’t worthy to be read and appreciated by a larger audience. But the fact is that, socially speaking, we live in a democracy and social media platforms have done nothing if not promote that kind of social democracy. The internet is boundless – it was never supposed to be a meritocracy, because it doesn’t have to be. There is literally room for everyone. That might mean your stupid-ass 16-year-old cousin has a platform with which to LOL and LMFAO, but theirs is  just one of many voices in the democratic cacophony of weirdly specific interests, political opinions, and narcissistic ramblings that make up that gloriously level playing field we call the internet.

In the end, Super Sad True Love Story is none of those things – it’s not sad, or true, and it’s sure as hell not worthy of the moniker of love story. Instead, Shteyngart’s pearl-clutching dystopia with its vague villains (China! Corrupt politicians, whose politics we won’t get into except to give them a very specific name!) and its obsession with the soul-destroying world of social media is just another Southern Baptist preacher, railing fire and brimstone because he’s scared that he and the world he understands is becoming irrelevant. It happens to everyone, and it’s really one of the more beautiful things about human nature – every generation thinks that the generation following theirs is sure to ruin the world. One day, maybe we’ll be right. The good news is my morally corrupt ADD culture probably won’t notice, because we’re too busy checking Facebook and tweeting unicorn GIFs. LOL, y’all.

Recommended for: Narcissists. Preferably those who are super freaked out about China, and look down with disdain on Twitter.

Read When: You’re finished watching the eleven o’clock news on a slow news day. The unsubstantial fear mongering will get you in the right state of mind.

Listen With: Katy Perry. Just to fuck with him.


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