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A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time
DVD ~ Alfre Woodard
11 used & new from $24.60

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I draw the line at Valentina Tereshkova, November 12, 2014
This review is from: A Wrinkle in Time (DVD)
I think I should just stop watching films based on books I love.

Oh. My. God. What a travesty. This thing is absolutely abysmal, and I mean seriously worse than any fantasy adaptation I've seen thus far. I really love "A Wrinkle in Time." It's been one of my favorites since childhood. The book is beautiful and genuinely creepy. This movie does it no justice. I knew the budget was low and it wasn't a theatrical release, but I was expecting something more faithful to the source material.

My goodness, is this tripe awful! The computer graphics are terrible, the script fails on every level, the characters are nothing like their book counterparts, most people are woefully miscast with the possible exception of the Murry parents and Charles Wallace, the themes are butchered, speculative ideas are culled and the story is modernized into a mess of typical fantasy cliches. For example, Charles Wallace is some kind of chosen one and has to fight the Black Thing, while Meg and Calvin are just tagging along to keep him safe because he's so little.

The three witches act as if they couldn't care less about the kids and act superior, spewing garbage lines like, "I pride myself on my knowledge. Meg, you have taught me a lot about the human race." In the book they were intellectually and spiritually on the level of angels. They were never careless of the kids' affections and they exuded safety. In the movie they were wacky, cliche, and barely even present in the story.

So many botched details like this one completely missed the mark. Why was Calvin's role dumbed down to cheerless jock? Why was the cross-dressing, gender-bending happy medium a creep? And by this I don't mean that cross-dressers or people of indeterminate gender are creepy, because they are not. I mean that the happy medium laughed at things that weren't funny, like kids falling off of swings. S/he just came across as sadistic and creepy.

The man with red eyes is transformed into a Big Bad Villain who sneers and grimaces and laughs and wheedles in the cheesiest of ways. The guy in the book was quietly menacing and couldn't even move from his chair. Where the heck was the pulsing brain and why wasn't IT actually in the movie? This is the first movie I've watched wherein the main villain's name and identity do not add up. They kept referencing IT as if IT was in charge, yet the only villain we see the kids fight is the man with red eyes with his brainwashing electric ball.

Everything that was original and unique about the book is trivialized in this childish way. The disobedient boy of Camazotz didn't feel any pain when he had to bounce the ball, he just got brainwashed in one second. IT was a writhing mass of something that looked like giant gray worms coming up through the floor.

Other things just made no sense whatsoever.

The man with red eyes kicks Meg's father in his broken leg, and the first thing out of Meg's mouth is, "Why are your eyes red?" Jeez, Meg, you love your dad, you punch anyone who says he left your mother, and the man just got kicked in his broken leg. That's all you have to say?

The Murry parents' names are changed. Why? What for? The twins are heartless and mean to Meg and Charles Wallace.

Why was there a giant hallucinogenic book in the middle of Central Intelligence from which the man with red eyes could pull out random stuff to show Charles Wallace?

Why did Charles Wallace get the ability to telekinetically make Meg flip around in the air?

Why did the man with red eyes pull out cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, to talk to Charles Wallace?

Why didn't Tereshkova speak Russian?

Why did Tereshkova start flying around in the air as if she was doing aerial ballet? What the heck is wrong with this movie?

The sad part is, flying Tereshkova and all, this isn't the worst movie adaptation of a fantasy book I've ever seen, though it's a serious contender. Sci-fi Channel's "Earthsea" was.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 18, 2015 1:49 PM PST


The Sibyl
The Sibyl
by Par Lagerkvis
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.05
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3.0 out of 5 stars Too depressing for me, October 25, 2014
This review is from: The Sibyl (Paperback)
I can say this book is very well written. The language is quite good. It's compulsively readable because you can just keep turning the pages. The translation I'm guessing is good as well, because it flows very smoothly and naturally. The story itself was interesting, the subject matter fascinating. But I found the end result rather depressing. I like an uplifting story, so the lack of joy and meaning in these characters' lives was hard for me to swallow.

The basic premise: the "wandering Jew" seeks advice from an old woman who used to be the oracle at Delphi, and within this framework we get her entire life story, along with endless speculations about god and religion. Right away, we have to suspend disbelief on several counts. There is the story of the wandering Jew himself, a sort of archaic folktale featuring a vengeful Jesus despite all evidence to the contrary in the Bible. Then we're supposed to accept that this depressed and desperate man has the patience to listen to the old woman's story without interruptions, even though it's rather long and discursive.

Which brings me to another problem: the entire novel is told rather than shown. This technique mostly works--again, I had no trouble turning the pages--but it does mean the events that happen to the Pythia are stripped of their immediacy because they're not happening as we experience them. My favorite part of the novel, unsurprisingly, was the section where the Pythia goes home for her mother's funeral and has to relearn how to live in the real world, outside the ritualized confines of the temple. This was as much a breath of fresh air for me as for the character, and I rejoiced in her newfound joy.

But all too soon, the Pythia returns to the temple, and hanging over the entire story is the specter of the reader's discomfort; we suspect that the prophesies spoken by the Delphic oracles were induced by drugs and religious fervor, or, at best, that their position was based on a convenient manipulation of the common people. But the oracle--and, to an extent, the wandering Jew--never question the presence of a god, which is disheartening. Where is the Pythia's skepticism about the life she's been forced to lead?

The oracle will die believing she was used not by greedy temple men for their own profit, but by a cruel and indifferent god. I'm not sure how she convinces herself that her god has given her any measure of comfort, and even less certain how she manages to send the wandering Jew on his way without a satisfactory answer to his dilemma. I was willing to run with the premise if something of value was learned at the end, but the characters are still enslaved to their superstitions. If you're a Nobel Prize winner you can probably get away with this, but I don't know if I'd be willing to try it myself.


The Passion
The Passion
by Jeanette Winterson
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.46
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4.0 out of 5 stars Hypnotic work, October 25, 2014
This review is from: The Passion (Paperback)
The Passion is one of the more unusual historical fiction novels I’ve read, a blending of re-imagined history, detailed settings in the Napoleonic era, elements of the fantastic, and a touch of gothic horror. With such a colorful backdrop to work from, Jeanette Winterson’s subject is love both sensual and pure, an examining of the darker feelings we harbor in our hearts. I haven’t encountered many other books like this one. Perhaps the closest titles that come to mind are The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee—dark historical fantasy/horror stories set in a decadent parallel version of Paris. Though writing in a different genre, Lee shares with Winterson a talent for magnetic prose, lush settings and narratives of epic scope, and an eerie atmosphere that sometimes surprises the reader with gruesome turns.


Victorine (New York Review Books Classics)
Victorine (New York Review Books Classics)
by Maude Hutchins
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.18
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful in many ways, October 25, 2014
Victorine is an unusual coming-of-age novel in which the normalcy of literary fiction is stripped away and everything is filtered through a sexually charged lens. The characters are skillfully drawn and vividly portrayed through lively description, a technique that works very well even though there is very little dialogue in the book. Similarly, there is very little in the way of conventional characterization, as every character is defined by their sexual feelings, but their hobbies, interests and ambitions remain largely unexplored. This is Victorine’s world, a teen girl’s new awareness of her sexuality. As a result, Hutchins’ characters represent the kind of suppressed feelings that many people might experience during any given phase in their lives depending on age and gender.

Victorine herself is difficult to define, a girl navigating the fluid phase of adolescence. She appears to be completely preoccupied with sexual desire and consequently I don’t know much about who she is as a person. There are however scenes in which Victorine’s personality comes out a little more, usually whenever she interacts with other people. We know that she likes taking long walks in the woods alone and observing farm animals, enjoys horseback riding and shooting rats on occasion, that she still plays with her dolls even though she’s hidden them, and that she’s an active daydreamer, even making up an imaginary crush for herself by the name of Misael. Their brief scene in Chapter I intrigued me as Hutchins makes it appear real. I thought Misael was a unique way of showing Victorine’s complex emotional interiority by projecting it outside her mind, and I was sorry to see her banish him so quickly.

Costello, only a few years older than Victorine, is similarly conflicted and suppressed, confusing his desire for women with his genuine love for his sister. Brother and sister are awkward with themselves and each other, aware that their bodies are changing and nostalgic for a time when they could roughhouse without awkwardness. If Victorine represents a child’s transition to adolescence, then Costello’s presence contrasts the differences between a boy and girl’s sexual awakening. Baby Dennis reflects what they have both lost, the exhibitionist freedom of body and expression that is only acceptable for very young children to display. He is uncivilized but unashamed, “a little ape-man with a flower between his legs” (74).

Teen neighbor Lydia Van Zandt is the missing link between brother and sister. The “glamorous tomboy” is paradoxically a real woman even though Costello doesn’t see it yet. She is comfortable being a girl and ‘one of the guys,’ not self-conscious of her physicality like the girlish Victorine. My favorite scene is the hide-and-seek game in which Lydia climbs the wall of Costello and Victorine’s house, "let[ting] out the cry of Tarzan” (89). In this paragraph I get a clearer sense of who Lydia is as a person than I get of the other characters, even heroine Victorine.

One troubling moment comes when Lydia fondles Victorine and asks her not to tell. Until now, suppressed sexuality has been rampant in the novel but manifested only within the characters’ minds. Characters feel vague incestuous urges but don’t act on them. This is the first moment in the book where a character breaches that barrier between sexual fantasy and reality. It’s more than a little uncomfortable because Lydia, seventeen and physically mature, initiates unwanted sexual contact with an under-aged girl. Victorine’s moment of arousal doesn’t negate the feelings of confusion and distrust she experiences almost immediately afterward.

What I love about Maude Hutchins’ depiction of her characters is their physicality, the way they occupy physical space and the way their bodies move through the story. In a book almost devoid of dialogue, this is important to establish their personalities. Plot-wise, this book is episodic but thematically the chapters work together to form a solid narrative. A little troubling perhaps is Hutchins’ final portrayal of the coming-of-age process. Lydia, despite her brief transgression with Victorine and her tomboyish nature, waits for Costello. Costello’s coming-of-age on the other hand involves sleeping with another woman—a much older, emotionally unavailable woman, a Mary-Sue figure for Maude Hutchins herself—before he can get together with his friend and equal. Boys will be boys? Virginal female and experienced male? Why the need to reinforce a traditional mindset? Time will tell whether the brash Victorine will break taboo, but this is where the story leaves her.


Mitko (Miami University Press Fiction)
Mitko (Miami University Press Fiction)
by Garth Greenwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.25
34 used & new from $5.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, atmospheric novella about mutual predation, October 25, 2014
Mitko is one of the more experimental novellas I’ve read in that it is a highly concentrated work. By this I mean it takes place over a relatively short period of time but slows down time so that the reader experiences the events as rationalized within the narrator’s head. It is essentially a short story stretched out with detailed passages of interiority, but this level of interiority is present even during the interactions between the narrator and Mitko, so that the pacing is consistent throughout. The result is a psychological portrait of a kind of relationship that many people probably find contemptible.

Facilitated by prostitution and continued out of obsession, the relationship could easily have been presented in a negative light, but the narrator’s keen perception lets us know how and why he allowed himself to pay a younger man for sex and enter into an ostensibly predatory relationship. During the course of the book, a connection develops between the two men based on mutual friendship, even though that friendship is compromised by the monetary basis of their transaction.

We don’t usually get this level of concentrated interiority in fiction, either in short fiction or in novels. The interactions between these characters would usually be given to us at a faster pace and would be communicated primarily through dialogue, a technique noticeably absent in this work. But Greenwell’s approach is powerful and effective because we experience only what the narrator experiences. We never so much as hear Mitko speak in his own voice; everything that happens is filtered through the narrator’s recollection.

Because of this secondhand approach, and because the entire story hinges on the narrator’s obsession, Mitko himself has to leap out of the page, and Greenwell spends an appropriate amount of time analyzing his characteristics. Greenwell allows himself room to dwell on his character and the narrator’s interactions with him in a way that a more conventional approach doesn’t. This level of detail and subjectivity is something Greenwell also does very effectively in his descriptions of setting and place.

At the end of the novel, the scenic descriptions are beautifully rendered but they are not there just to fill up the screen with visuals. The cold turbulence of the weather reflects the narrator’s feelings and his “remorse” echoes the “dragging” of the surf. The external setting mirrors the interiority of the characters and unifies the work with a sense of powerful atmosphere.


Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Price: $8.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A genre reader's take, October 25, 2014
I’d forgotten how truly bizarre gothic novels can be, and I’m not talking the Bronte sisters, whose works are a realistic treatment of the surreal novels of the 1800’s. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is definitely a gothic novel, written in the tradition of surreal works from the 1800’s like The Castle of Otranto. As in Otranto, a young girl’s seemingly ordinary life is turned upside down by a series of shocking, horrific, or dreamlike events, sometimes illogical and not immediately related. There is a potential love interest (Orlik), a clearly defined enemy (the Polecat), and all moral or logical purchase is removed when people whom Valerie trusts become suspect (her now devious and scheming Grandmother).

There is also a subtext of incest in these novels. In Otranto, Manfred decided he would marry his son Conrad’s bride. It was barely touched upon in the novel, but Isabella resembled his daughter so much that the man who loved Matilda often couldn’t distinguish the two. In Valerie we see some of these tropes as well; Orlik in Valerie’s clothes is “like her sister." I admit I was a little disappointed by this suggestion, as I was expecting a love story from the moment Orlik sent Valerie the letter in Chapter III, a clean love story to balance out the evil of the people around them, not an incestuous attraction.

A reader primarily of fantasy and science fiction, I like a book that throws dreamlike sequences at me, so long as they add up to an intrinsic logic in the novel. Bonus points if the bizarre experiences are clues to a greater mystery. But Valerie is a troubling heroine. Here is a young woman who is often a victim of circumstance. Her adventures seem to happen to her, orchestrated by other people. Orlik, ostensibly a “good” character, manipulates her as well. Valerie is saved from being a victim by acting on her curiosity. She chooses to aid Orlik several times and attempts to figure out what is going on with her grandmother. Yet Orlik too is a victim of the Polecat.

I’ll be honest, I enjoyed reading the book immensely, but I’m not sure I entirely understand it. My best guess is a symbolic coming-of-age story about a young girl’s transition from childhood to adulthood, including menstruation and the awakening of sexual desire. These are fascinating themes and I was onboard with the story until the last two chapters, which mystified me no end. The analytical essay appended to the novel qualified it somewhat by giving me a cursory history of surrealism and the concepts Nezval was interested in, as well as a specific interpretation.

According to the author of this essay, most of the book is Valerie’s dream sparked by her first period. The last few chapters take place in the waking world (around the time Valerie wakens and questions her Grandmother, only to find that her Grandmother doesn’t remember any of the adventures she relates). The final two chapters shift from reality to surreality, or a kind of intensified, spiritual reality.

This seems to me as good an interpretation as any, except for the explanation of the final chapters. How exactly do the characters transition from material reality to spiritual hyper-reality? Do they simply pack up their bags, drive the coach to a mansion in the country, and live peacefully in the woods? Did the coach stray into a parallel dimension of some kind? Are they perhaps in an afterlife? Or is it simply Valerie’s imagination at work again, the forest a peaceful space she created as a mental retreat? This would explain the ease with which she allows herself to be close to Orlik, a desire that bothered her (but not him!) during the course of the novel because of the incestuous angle. It is perhaps a stroke of skillful ambiguity that we never find out if Orlik and Valerie will become lovers.

It seems to me that the most effective allegorical stories function first and foremost as straight narratives. The symbolic narrative enriches the work but is ultimately not necessary to understand the story. This was mostly true of Valerie until I got to the end. The ending puzzles me because it seems that I need that essay on the history of surrealism and its ideals in order to make sense of the story. I need the theory that Valerie is also questing for liberation from gender limitations, she and Orlik two halves of a whole, reunited at the end as the androgynous perfect being. I would not have come up with this interpretation on my own because my first reading of the book was on a surface level. My concern was piecing together the plot, but it appears it’s not entirely possible to separate plot from symbolism and expect logic from the ending. The bigger question is: would a modern audience accept a resolution that can only be understood through careful analysis? I don’t think they would, and for this reason I think so much of a narrative’s power depends on a carefully constructed ending.

My qualms with the final chapter aside, there is much to like in this book. I paid close attention to the way Nezval used language and narrative techniques to keep me turning the pages. The story is filled with magical moments but the writing itself is clear, brisk, and economical. There are no wasted words in the descriptions. Nezval’s descriptive paragraphs were a real breeze to get through.

He also excelled at pacing. Something was always happening in each chapter, perhaps too much, which gave the novel an episodic feel, but he was writing it partly in imitation of gothic serials, in which case the episodic nature of the plot is appropriate. I admit I questioned the demise of the Polecat, a powerful antagonist who seemed to orchestrate the entire plot. Valerie, Orlik, Grandmother, or some combination of the three would have been appropriate choices to take him down.

This means that Valerie ultimately has very little agency in her story. Despite her plucky courage, her adventures happen to her. Her liberation comes not through her own agency but through the intervention of others. In the end, a meandering and strange book.


MAIA
MAIA
by Richard Adams
Edition: Hardcover
55 used & new from $8.92

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The kind of epic fantasy I like, unfortunately hobbled by an inauthentic old-fashioned male perspective, October 25, 2014
This review is from: MAIA (Hardcover)
Stylistically, Maia is the kind of adult novel I readily sink into as a reader and aspire to write someday: a long, hefty, sprawling epic of a story, rich in intrigue, exotic locales, and a large cast of characters. Characters start out young and grow throughout the text, and the story is appropriately complex, so that by the time I turn the last page I feel as if I have witnessed a piece of someone’s life or read a historical account of a parallel universe rather than a novel. The story often can’t be reduced to plot summary because the experience is the story. Like many books in its subgenre (a category I call “ancient world” or “desert” fantasy), Maia draws inspiration from the ancient pagan cultures of Earth’s history, its trappings of religion, superstitious magic, and fertility goddesses evocative of the ancient Near East.

Richard Adams tells his novel the old-fashioned way. Maia features no time jumps or literary gimmicks, just a linear narrative of a young woman’s life in slavery and rise to power in her war-torn world. Adams’ approach to storytelling reminds me of the great historical classics of the 1800’s: heavy on scenic description and leisurely paced. The pleasure in this kind of text is in the details, savoring the moment with the characters instead of rushing to find out “what happens next.” Though a book this long is risky, I believe Maia is an impressive achievement that utilizes traditional narrative techniques successfully.

The book opens with a long and very detailed description of place before giving us the first glimpse of heroine Maia. Though the description of a woodland pool is intricate and lovely, I would personally hesitate to start a very long novel in such a slow and static way. This is again an 1800’s classic approach, but I think starting with a character, as close to an action scene as possible, makes for a stronger beginning.

Richard Adams excels at vivid description, especially of natural settings, something I wish I could do better. He shows a good command of language by providing description in key places, such as changes in natural scenery when Maia is taken by slave traders. Dialogue, on the other hand, is given to us quickly with economical dialogue tags, which makes for smooth reading.

Adams’ choice of narrating past action is also old fashioned. When Occula tells Maia her life story, we get the narrative in uninterrupted monologue over the course of several pages. A more modern approach would show us Occula’s past directly in an alternating chapter from her point of view. I would argue that this is a more effective technique, however Adams’ use of monologue helps keep the action in the present scene and serves to keep Occula a mystery as readers question her narrative.

Old-fashioned or not, I am fascinated by Richard Adams’ meticulous, consistent worldbuilding, even pacing, and intricate plotting. Unfortunately, I had major reservations about the gratuitous content of the book--not the sex scenes in and of themselves, but the unrealistic way a young woman accepts non-consensual advances from older, unappealing men who wield power over her. Maia is also frankly unlikable at the start of the novel, a selfish, lazy girl who refuses to help out around the house. As a consequence I didn't much care for her plight. She's also a beauty that everyone wants. I couldn't believe in her as a real person. She was not a heroine I could identify with, more a kind of male fantasy. Her world was fascinating, but I didn't fully enjoy following her adventures through it.


As I Lay Dying - Book Club Edition
As I Lay Dying - Book Club Edition
by William Faulkner
Edition: Paperback
49 used & new from $1.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Masterfully written but not the type of story I enjoy, October 25, 2014
An author had this to say on point of view: “Always add a POV like it costs you a million dollars.” While I think this is a good rule of thumb to keep narrative in check and give enough depth to leading characters, I also see that it’s a matter of preference. Many authors I greatly admire write multiple points of view in very complex narratives, weaving the voices together in unexpected ways. It becomes like a puzzle that I have to solve, something I really enjoy. Books like Frank Herbert’s Dune and the works of Patricia A. McKillip come to mind. And really, it would be a sad world without The Martian Chronicles.

William Faulkner does a masterful job of writing this novel about a dying woman from the points of view of multiple characters. Each character has insight into the narrative and each is also grounded in his or her immediate reality, such as Cash’s list on building the coffin and Dewey Dells’ worries about her pregnancy. When mother Addie’s voice shows up for the first time, it is a startling moment but a welcome break from the family members, who are at this point focused on their own misery.

I wonder if perhaps there were too many points of view; I did get confused when names outside the family occasionally popped up and disappeared after the one chapter. The voices of neighbors offered oblique insight into the family, but the people the Bundren family meet along their journey don’t offer much except for judgment. I greatly admire Faulkner’s ability to change the syntax and diction with his characters. This reflects their personalities and ages. Cora for example speaks more lucidly and clearly than the younger sister, Dewey Dell, who does a fair amount of rambling to get her point across while still skirting the big issues. Vardaman’s voice is particularly believable as a young boy, though I honestly thought he was much younger than some sources online would indicate. I saw him as a five or six-year-old boy, and some people think he’s around ten. His bizarre logic (correlating his mother’s death with a fish), albeit brought about by his grief, seems like something a very young child would think up.

Faulkner writes wonderfully about ordinary people in ordinary settings. His focus on the mundane household chores (i.e. cleaning the fish) gives me a solid foundation for the world his characters inhabit. His characters express themselves primarily through interior monologues but the setting details are tactile and real. I especially admired Faulkner’s careful plotting in the novel. He started in the midst of the plot instead of dwelling on exposition. Setting details were fed to us along the way. The family’s backstory similarly came through in the characters’ actions and thoughts, not in long blocks of exposition.

Yet in the end I found this story slow-moving and depressing. I much preferred Faulkner's novella, "The Bear."


The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.51
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A little too literary for me, October 25, 2014
This review is from: The Handmaid's Tale (Paperback)
I'm definitely a fan of Margaret Atwood and look forward to reading more of her work. I can say I liked rather than loved this book. But--dare I say it?--Oryx and Crake is a much stronger story. My problems with The Handmaid's Tale probably boil down to a matter of preference. The setting is a post-apocalyptic United States in which most people are plagued with infertility. The titular handmaid is Offred, a woman who remembers life before the theocracy, before her freedom and her daughter were taken away from her. Her only role in the new government is to conceive a child with her master, the Commander, in a ritual bedding involving her master, the Wife, and herself.

This is scathing social commentary, and very little about it is subtle. The oppressive theocracy is like an exaggerated version of fundamentalist Christian and Islamic religions--but surely in oppressive countries women still have lives? Women may not have power but they have each other, they're allowed to talk in the kitchen, to sing together, to tell stories. Nobody expects even the most disenfranchised woman to sit locked up in her room all day with literally nothing to do. This part of the story strained credulity for me.

Then there's the not unreasonable question of benefit: who exactly is benefiting from the Republic of Gilead? Not the Wives, certainly not the Handmaids. But the Commanders and other men seem in their own way just as miserable with this setup, so how is this government even functioning? These questions are, ironically enough, brought up by the fictional symposium on Gileadean studies at the end, as if these university professors didn't see the benefits of the regime either. But these questions remain largely unanswered, because Offred is mostly a passive character. In a sense I like this focus on the mundane, being forced to observe this world from the point of view of an average captive woman, not necessarily a heroine or freedom fighter worth her salt.

But for the sake of the story, for sheer excitement, I can't help but think that Offred's friend Moira would've made a better heroine--a woman who tries over and over again to escape despite torture. Being stuck with Offred means that we're also stuck with her circuitous observations. The style here is wordy, erudite. In part it's a character trait of Offred's; stuck in a room with nothing to do, she's going to be talking a lot in her head. When faced with lack of stimuli and conditions that lead to insanity or depression, the human mind rationalizes a person's behaviors. Offred's philosophizing is thus a way for her to make sense of what's happened to her.

Yet this scholarly style smacks of "modern classic" to me in a way that Oryx and Crake hadn't, because someone--the author? The narrator?--is trying way too hard. The story is obviously "deep." Why bludgeon us about the head with concepts, metaphors, and symbols we'd be capable of picking up in a more subtle narrative? Style, not subject matter, is what made this a bit of a slow read for me. It's a little too literary, a passive narrator constantly offering us keen insights on commonplace occurrences.

Genre fiction is often shot down by literary buffs as lacking in higher thinking. The thing is, great genre fiction is not devoid of symbolism and metaphor, but no one spoon-feeds the meaning of the story to you; you have to dig for it. This is the kind of style I ultimately prefer, where character and plot take precedence. If only Offred had escaped with Moira. Something more exciting might have happened and we could still get her scholarly musings along the way.


Silver Sparrow
Silver Sparrow
by Tayari Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.75
133 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful story that poses difficult questions, October 25, 2014
This review is from: Silver Sparrow (Paperback)
Silver Sparrow is a complex novel of family secrets, divided loyalties, and the many forms of love among friends and family. It is the story of two girls from very different backgrounds whose mothers are married to the same man. Chaurisse Witherspoon’s mother doesn’t know that husband James is a bigamist, while Dana Yarboro’s mother is aware from the beginning and goes out of her way not to intrude into the lives of her husband’s first family. As they live in a small town, this inevitably results in severe limitations being put upon the life of Dana.

The novel is split into two parts, told from the perspectives of James’ daughters, the girls who didn’t choose to have a bigamist father and suffer the most as a consequence of his choice. The first half of the book is told in Dana’s voice, a smart and beautiful girl hampered by poverty, secrecy, and her sense of always being second best. She yearns for independence but mismanages her life with drugs, partying, and dating an abusive boyfriend.

The second half of the novel is given to Chaurisse, the legitimate daughter who isn’t aware that her father has another family. She considers herself to be overweight and plain, and not particularly smart either, though she tries to be a good daughter, a marked contrast to Dana’s rebellious attitude. Tension escalates and secrets begin to come to the light as Dana and Chaurisse form an unlikely friendship, one girl aware of the secrets she’s keeping, the other oblivious.

Author Tayari Jones gives us a beautiful, tangled love story. Her characterizations are delightfully complex and she builds intricate dilemmas on their strengths and shortcomings. James Witherspoon tries his best to be a loving father to both girls, though he shortchanges Dana considerably and ultimately betrays her love. Gwendolyn Yarboro is a proud woman determined to provide for her daughter, but her attitude towards the Witherspoon family is less than charitable, shallow and downright petty, qualities she transmits to Dana. Laverne Witherspoon is a seemingly unremarkable woman who ultimately outshines Gwen as wife and mother by the strength of her love, capacity for forgiveness, and determination to keep family together. Dana fights for individuality but fails to break out of her inferiority complex, while Chaurisse calls upon unknown reserves of courage and loyalty to stand up for Dana at a critical moment of the story.

Chaurisse is so noble in fact, so clearly the better person, that it’s curious the author chose to present the book as Dana’s story. Tayari Jones even said in an interview that she identified more strongly with Chaurisse as a young girl, the type of girl who never felt there was anything special about her. Yet the book belongs to Dana. Dana is the eponymous “silver sparrow,” a skinny girl with natural beauty who hides behind artificial beauty—in other words, a fake and something of a bimbo. This is Chaurisse’s definition. Tayari Jones’ definition is somewhat softer. She describes a “silver” girl as “ a beautiful girl in every way.”

Dana is not to my mind beautiful in every way. She learns hauteur from her mother and uses it to full advantage, sneering at Chaurisse’s attempts at genuine friendship, sizing up her rival for father’s affections, flipping her long perfect hair around and asking rude questions about Chaurisse’s extensions. Her attitude towards the world is in need of a change and her sense of self-worth could use improvement. She is a deeply flawed character, and more than that, she is an arrogant one, and doesn’t seem to have learned anything by the time the novel ends. This is all in line with her upbringing and the psychological scars she wears, though, and a valid portrait of a damaged girl.

Nevertheless, I have some qualms about using “beauty” or lack thereof as a device to make the battleground equal between the two girls. Chaurisse is still in a position of superiority over Dana, yet why must the author use her lack of physical beauty as the means to humble her? Why is Dana’s beauty the sole quality that humbles Chaurisse? Why is Dana special only because of her beauty, so that everyone she meets adores her, fixates on her, is awed by her?

Dana is poor and stifled, but she is universally loved. Chaurisse is the privileged daughter and the better person, but people dismiss her for her supposedly plain appearance. Dana’s position as both underdog and stunning beauty is rather convenient to earn our sympathy for this misguided girl. Convenient, too, that Chaurisse envies her because she’s beautiful, like a twist of fate rewarding the underprivileged daughter.

We are told Chaurisse has the upper hand all along, but Dana is both alluring enigma and the center of this small universe. She may have a tough life, but her sheer prettiness is still rewarded with unwavering attention from the entire cast. How many young girls who read this novel—girls who identify with Chaurisse—will understand that plain, chubby Chaurisse really does have it better, when they would rather buy into the fantasy of a troubled, dramatic life in beautiful Dana’s silver skin?


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