Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1985, McClelland and Stewart

Genre: Fiction, Dystopian, Speculative Fiction

“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of thy womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Billah, go in unto her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” – Genesis 30:1-3

Last September 17, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale made history when it became the first show from a streaming site to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. The critically acclaimed television series went on to win eight other highly coveted awards, including Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd), Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series, (Reed Morano for Offred), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Now, one of the amazing effects of the show’s unprecedented success is how it brought a resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s chilling literary masterpiece. Thirty-two years after its initial publication, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to resonate with and strike fear into the hearts of its readers. The book is eerily timely with its surfeit of warnings on how absolute power and fanaticism can swiftly and radically eradicate the seemingly small but ultimately significant freedoms that we enjoy today.

With the current global political climate being rife with fear and skittish unrest, the book gives us a preview of a possible worst-case scenario. It acts as a cautionary tale that spreads ice-cold dread deep into the marrow of its readers. It offers us a glimpse of a fate that is worse than death. After all, mere continued existence may be a condition of living, but it’s certainly a poor substitute to feeling alive, right?

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Book Review: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

“Beware the White Wraith and be careful where you tread, lest your next step be your last!” – from Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

Title: Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith

Author: Shaun Hume

Genre: Fiction; Fantasy, Adventure, Young Adult

First Published: 2013, Popcorn & Rice Publishing

Synopsis (from Amazon): “Ewan Pendle was weird. Really weird. At least, that’s what everyone told him. Then again, being able to see monsters that no one else could wasn’t exactly normal.

Thinking he had been moved off to live with his eleventh foster family, Ewan is instead told he is a Lenitnes, one of an ancient race of people who can alone see the real Creatures which inhabit the earth. He is taken in by Enola, the mysterious, sword-carrying Grand Master of Firedrake Lyceum, a labyrinth of halls and rooms in the middle of London where other children, just like Ewan, go to learn the ways of the Creatures.”

 

The Bad Bread Review:

What makes for a truly fantastic and memorable children’s novel? Well, monsters, magic, mayhem, princesses, unlikely heroes and heroines, and good triumphing over evil all seem to be excellent elements of an exciting children’s read. But for this humble reader, the mark of a truly stellar piece of children’s literature is the book’s ability to open up a world of possibility and a sense of belongingness to its reader at a time when these reassurances are most needed.

Now, the search for one’s identity is a lifelong, and oftentimes never-ending process—that’s true. But it is a process with its pillars quietly founded in childhood. As the Pulitzer-winning American journalist Katherine Anne Porter once said, “Childhood is the fiery furnace in which we are melted down to essentials and that essential shaped for good.” For the bookish child, some of life’s greatest lessons are learned, not through interactions in the classroom or the playground, but rather through the adventures of the various heroes in their favorite novels.

And as cliché as it sounds, children need literary heroes that they can look up to and emulate. They need characters that can understand them at the fundamental level. Protagonists that face the same struggles they deal with day in and day out. Everyday struggles like difficulties fitting in, dealing with bullies, and being taken seriously in a world run by adults that are adamant that they always know better than the child. Cue that famous scene in the movie adaptation of Matilda when Harry Wormwood tells the little girl, “Listen you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

This brings us to Shaun Hume’s wonderful first novel, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith. What I loved most about Ewan Pendle was that it readily met all my aforementioned criteria for a stellar children’s book. There was magic, yes. Mayhem was present in abundance. There were things that went bump in the night—and more than just shadows, these were monsters—or rather Creatures—that were all very real and all very frightening. There was a queen that needed saving. But most importantly, there were characters like Ewan Pendle, Mathilde Rue, and Enid Ilkin—three inspiring, brave, and somewhat ‘unlikely’ heroes that bookish children can point to and say, “that’s me!” or “that’s who I’d like to be!”

Ewan Pendle is weird and different by Lubber (non-Lentines) standards. He sees magical creatures that adults and other children cannot see. At the start of the book, he is shunned and ridiculed for his ‘overactive imagination,’ as if imagination in children was something to be cured and curbed rather than cultivated. Never mind that imagination is an integral part of innovation and creation. Never mind that one of the greatest minds of all time, Albert Einstein, firmly believed in the power of imagination. In his words, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

Ewan is made to face rejection after rejection from his foster families and classmates because of this quirk in his character. But as is often the case in the real world, what other people considered an affliction—this overactive imagination—turned out to be a very special gift. The very quality that made Ewan Pendle a ‘weirdo’ was also what made him a formidable hero. And therein lies the true beauty of this book. Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith teaches children that “different” doesn’t mean “bad,” and “weird” doesn’t equate to “wrong.” On the contrary, weird can be absolutely wonderful.

As for “different,” well, it’s all matter of perspective, isn’t it? A fact that Ewan quickly learns while on a train to London. Thinking he was about to meet his nth foster family at the end of the trip, he instead meets his new guardian, Enola Whitewood—and she is just as wonderfully weird and different as him! Enola informs Ewan that in lieu of a foster family, he’s actually gaining entry into an entirely different world than what he’s used to. He was the newest cadet of the Firedrake Lyceum, where other gifted children like him were learning to develop their special talents.

Of course, like any great children’s book, Ewan’s personal struggles to fit in and do well in Firedrake Lyceum doesn’t end in a chapter. This is his personal journey, after all. But he does learn more about himself and everything that he’s capable of. He learns more about his past—about his real parents and the world they lived in. But more importantly, he learns more about his place in the world. And that is the best lesson of all. Add an assassination plot against the queen and an almost indestructible Creature, the White Wraith, into the mix, and what you have is a rollercoaster of an adventure that will surely keep any reader at the edge of his or her seat.

Written as an homage to some of the greatest YA literature in existence, like Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith offers older readers an array of literary winks and nudges—tiny inside jokes that make reading EP feel a bit like coming home. Ultimately, Ewan Pendle and the White Wraith is a book that I would recommend to any reader looking for a spot of adventure. This is a solid first effort from its talented author, Shaun Hume—and I, for one, can’t wait for his next EP offering.

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Featured Poem: Pursuit by Sylvia Plath

black panther

Pursuit  is probably the most erotic poem from Sylvia Plath. It was written almost immediately after the great poetess met her handsome husband-to-be, the poet, Ted Hughes. The poem presents the image of the persona (Plath) as being the prey of this powerful, irresistible, and ultimately destructive panther (Hughes).

To see herself as a type of prey to the biggest seducer of Cambridge (1), and to acknowledge the possibility of destruction under the hands (paws?) of this powerful predator is very telling of the gut-pull, the incredible attraction between two of the world’s greatest Literary minds. Plath knows the danger of this attraction, which is why the persona in this piece attempts to run, to bolt each door behind her—all the while knowing that running is futile.

There is also that fear of becoming one of the ‘charred and ravened women,’ which she describes in the poem. But despite this knowledge, this fear, she too is drawn to the panther. Her blood ‘quickens, gonging in (her) ears.’ That, perhaps, shows how the magnetic pull between them is beyond the persona’s control.

And of course, there is that telling second line: “One day I’ll have my death of him.” Self-fulfilling prophecy? That is still debatable. The way I read it, it is Plath’s acknowledgement of the depths of her emotions for Hughes.

 

Pursuit

By Sylvia Plath

 Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.

RACINE

There is a panther stalks me down:

One day I’ll have my death of him;

His greed has set the woods aflame,

He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,

Advancing always at my back;

From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:

The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,

Haggard through the hot white noon.

Along red network of his veins

What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land

Condemned by our ancestral fault,

Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;

Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet

The singeing fury of his fur;

His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,

Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,

Kindled like torches for his joy,

Charred and ravened women lie,

Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;

Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;

The black marauder, hauled by love

On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes

Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush

Bright those claws that mar the flesh

And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,

And I run flaring in my skin;

What lull, what cool can lap me in

When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,

To quench his thirst I squander blood;

He eats, and still his need seeks food,

Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,

The gutted forest falls to ash;

Appalled by secret want, I rush

From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,

I shut my doors on that dark guilt,

I bolt the door, each door I bolt.

Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,

Coming up and up the stairs.

Note: ‘Biggest seducer in Cambridge’ came from the book, ‘Her Husband’ by Diane Middlebrook.

 Image: wallpapers.free-review.net

Book Review: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie – Pamela Des Barres

I'm with the Band - Pamela Des Barres

Title: I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie

Author: Pamela Des Barres

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Music

First Published: 1987

Pages: 320

Status: Read

Here’s a small confession: I have been lusting after this particular book for almost ten years. After reading about her affair with the incomparable Jimmy Page, Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela) reached Rockstar status in my book. I scoured the World Wide Web for snippets of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The odd few pages I found in forums and blogs had me oooh-ooh-ooh-ing over Des Barres’ relationships with music legends like Mr. Page, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Gram Parsons.

So, when my sister handed me my own copy of I’m With the Band, I flipped through the first hundred pages in search of her love affair with Jimmy Page. Reading about her passionate encounters with the Rock God had me aching with envy. It was a sensory overload. I was seduced, and at the same time, set straight by Des Barres’ stories of the infamous 1960s-1970s rock scene.

In I’m With the Band, we follow the transformation of Pamela Ann Miller from small-town girl to the golden muse of some of Rock’s most formidable personalities. We read about how Miss Pamela, and her group—the GTOs, helped pave the way for girl groups and the new breed of baby groupies. The group, which was officially formed by Frank Zappa, went on to record an album called Permanent Damage in 1969. Though the album’s commercial success was limited, it was an admirable effort, which brought the spotlight to the fantastic women behind the rock movement. To me, these women showed the world what it means to really love music–to feel passion, awe, and reverence for those who produce stellar riffs and melodies.

In this book, we also learn more about the LA scene. We are made privy to the backstage secrets of some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Interspersing memories and personal anecdotes with journal entries, Miss Pamela takes us by the hand and guides us through the blossoming sense of awareness of the 1960s and the decadence and excess of the 1970s. Her delightfully candid and well-written memoir details the goings-on and the who’s who of one of the most important modern musical and spiritual revolutions in history.

To be honest, I don’t think I can rave enough about this book. Loved every Page—pun, v. much intended. The only bad thing about I’m With the Band is that it had to end.

Verdict: Highly recommended to ALL music lovers and closet groupies (like yours truly).

RATING: A+

February 11, 2013: Remembering Sylvia Plath

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Fifty years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning, Sylvia Plath brought bread and milk to her sleeping children. She opened their window and closed the door, carefully stuffing towels into the cracks—separating her children from her final, decisive act. She did the same with the kitchen door, carefully, methodically carrying out the operation with the same precision she used in choosing the words to flesh out her worn soul. The oven’s gas taps were turned on, a cloth was placed inside the oven. She laid her head onto the cloth and waited for death to claim her.

THAT is the image of Plath in pop culture. The brilliant poetess who died too soon, head in the oven and children bawling in the next room. THAT image continues to cast its massive shadow on Sylvia Plath’s (and consequently, Ted Hughes’s) exceptional works. It has become almost impossible to separate this tragedy from her poetry, and yet, it is this same tragedy that one must transcend to completely understand her genius. Sylvia Plath is often regarded as one of the most well-known Confessional Poets in the last century. And yet for many, she is simply the mad writer who stuck her head in the oven to die.

So while today may be Sylvia Plath’s 50th death anniversary, for me, I’ll use it to mark the start of my year of celebrating Plath. This year, I plan to go over her works and post poem analyses and reviews. I shall try to see each poem, short story, essay, or novel with a fresh and unbiased eye—hopefully, picking up a thing or two in the process. I end this post with a quote from Plath:

 

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – from The Bell Jar