Book Review: The Blind Assassin

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Tomorrow I have the opportunity of a lifetime to meet Margaret Atwood, renowned author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, which was my book club’s selection for September.

There’s so much to unpack in this novel, but I believe what makes it so successful is its structure. With quite possibly the best first line in literature, “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge,” the story of sisters Iris and Laura Chase is given an immediate sense of intrigue.

Set during the Great Depression and WWII, an elderly Iris recounts her life, describing her tumultuous relationships with her family: her allegedly mentally disturbed younger sister Laura, her alcoholic father, her wealthy but emotionally detached husband, her drug-addicted daughter, and estranged granddaughter.

As if the plot wasn’t already crammed enough, Atwood alternates these narrations with a novel within a novel. “The Blind Assassin” is not only reflective of the enigmatic symbolism, it’s also the title of a science fiction story created by two unnamed lovers on the run. It’s up to the reader to figure out who is the real author of this book, a feat which lends to the larger climax of Atwood’s novel.

I will admit that the pacing of this book starts off very slow, and the science fiction chapters do not seem well integrated with Iris’s chapters. I’m not surprised that a couple people in my book club gave up after 50-100 pages, because Atwood’s style is all about character development and delayed gratification. If you can stick it out, you’re rewarded with a phenomenal story. I finished reading the last 200 pages in just three days and thoroughly enjoyed how the pacing accelerated into its dramatic conclusion.

I don’t want to give away too much, because this is a beautifully written book where every detail is a clue to understanding this puzzle, from the interspersed newspaper clippings right down to each article of clothing that is worn. It’s no wonder why The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize and TIME’s Best Novel of 2000: Atwood has a wit that is unmatched, and this book is exactly what literary fiction should be.

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Two thumbs up from the real-life Book Club Babes!

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Book Review: The Gendarme

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Last night I commemorated the centennial of the Armenian Genocide by visiting San Francisco’s city hall, which was lit up in red, blue, and orange to match the Armenian flag.

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Unfortunately, the fire department forbid me and the hundreds of people waiting outside to join the speeches and dance performance in the already packed hall, so I left with nothing but a few good photos.

Image via Goodreads

This experience mirrored my minor disappointment while reading Mark T. Mustian’s The Gendarme (2010). The historical fiction novel is narrated by Ahmet Khan, or his preferred Americanized name Emmett Conn, who is in his 90s and suffering from disturbing dreams caused by a brain tumor.

These dreams are actually flashbacks during the Armenian Genocide, in which Emmett participated as a gendarme–a Turkish soldier. His job was to send Armenian deportees through the desert to Syria, but he quickly learned that this march was to their deaths as both countries’ governments had no intention of keeping them alive.

During the trek, Emmett falls in love with an inappropriately young Armenian girl named Araxie. Despite the barbarity he commits on this journey, he risks his life to protect hers. When they finally arrive in Syria, he must decide how to escape their wretched fate.

I must warn you that this book is horrifyingly graphic. Not only do Emmett and his fellow gendarmes sexually assault and murder innocent people, those who are spared succumb to debilitating diseases. It takes a long time before the reader can sympathize with Emmett for being on the wrong side of history.

However, in the end, I felt pity for this man for his life of suffering, both when he was young committing atrocities and in his old age when his family commits him to an institution for his mental instability. You are already aware that Emmett and Araxie did not escape the genocide together, and it’s especially heartbreaking to watch Emmett realize his crimes after decades of post-traumatic repression.

The Gendarme isn’t the most well-written story, and many readers will find its nonlinear structure aggravating. I should also point out that although Mustian and I are both Armenians, I appreciated reading a Turk’s perspective–however abhorrent it may be.

This book cannot compare to The Sandcastle Girls in terms of literary prowess, but both are excellent tales of this historical tragedy that does not get enough attention. The Gendarme made me sob at the end, but more importantly, it made me grateful for what my ancestors suffered so that my family could live on.

My New TV Obsession: Outlander!

Image via Outlander TV News

You know that feeling when you discover a really good TV show? You binge watch until you catch up, then anxiously await the latest episode. You want to bring it up in random conversation and convince everyone around you to get on the bandwagon. You’re hooked, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Well, that feeling has happened to me with the new hit “Outlander!” On Saturdays at 9:00pm EST on STARZ, the show is based off the series by Diana Gabaldon, which began in 1991 and currently stands at eight novels.

The story follows Claire Randall (played by Caitriona Balfe), an English nurse who is vacationing in Scotland with her husband Frank after World War II. After seeing each other only briefly in the past five years, this ‘honeymoon’ is a chance for them to reconnect.

They come across an ancient Druid ritual, and when Claire returns to the scene the following day, she touches one of the standing stones and is magically transported back 200 years in time.

Image via Buzz Sugar

Lost and confused by what has happened, she runs into Frank’s ancestor, a ruthless British officer known as Black Jack Randall. She nearly escapes being raped when a group of Scottish highlanders rescue her and take her back to Castle Leoch.

Even though her nursing skills have helped the clan, she has yet to earn their trust. Fearing she’s an English spy, they keep her against her will, while she plans her return to the standing stones and into the present time.

Although I am not familiar with the book series, I am absolutely in love with this show. I’m already a huge fan of period dramas, and if you like “The Tudors,” “Rome,” or “Game of Thrones,” you will appreciate “Outlander.” It’s the perfect combination of history, adventure, science fiction, and folklore.

And did I mention romance? Claire’s relationship with Scotsman Jamie MacTavish is sizzling under the surface, and I look forward to watching their love progress. I also look forward to shirtless shots of actor Sam Heughan in his kilt, but who can blame a girl?

I’ll just leave this here 😉 (Image via Cinema Blend)

I’ve only seen the first three episodes, but I can’t give the show enough praise. Claire is a strong female heroine with plenty of wit and wisdom, and the landscape of Scotland is so gorgeous it counts as its own character. STARZ has signed off on 16 highly addictive episodes this season, so jump right in!

In Honor of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

Hi everyone!

As is tradition on Book Club Babe, I spend this day reflecting on my ancestral history and appreciating my culture. This April 24th is the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which means that next year will mark an entire century that this tragedy has been ignored.

As I have stated before, unlike the Jews during World War II, the Armenians never received their equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials. To this day, Turkey denies slaughtering its neighbors, and the United States and other nations refuse to formally recognize the ethnic cleansing as an official genocide–simply due to fear cowardice over losing their strategic military alliances in the Middle East.

I urge everyone to learn more about the genocide and spread awareness. Educate your friends and family and urge your local politicians to demand justice for the Armenian community. Violence begets violence, and the longer we turn our face from it, the longer it will continue.

You don’t have to be Armenian to empathize with one. To mark this day, I thought I would reblog my review of Chris Bohjalian’s historical novel, The Sandcastle Girls. It’s a beautifully written, heartbreaking depiction of this history, and one of my favorite reads of 2013. Highly, highly recommended!

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of the best feelings when you’re reading is when the story gains momentum and you just have to keep going until you finish it. This was one of those stories, and I’m so glad. As an Armenian, I had very high expectations of Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, because it addresses the historical tragedy closest to my heart.

Bohjalian certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to discussing, as he puts it, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” Although Turkey, the United States, and various other countries refrain from calling the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians a “genocide,” that’s exactly what it was. Between 1915 and 1923, we lost over half of our population, forever impacting future generations.

These multiple generations are all included in The Sandcastle Girls, since the author writes two stories concurrently. Laura Petrosian is writing a novel in the present-day about her grandparents, Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian and Bostonian volunteer Elizabeth Endicott.

In 1915, Armen has escaped the clutches of the Turks, killing men and losing his wife and daughter in the process. He meets Elizabeth in Aleppo, Syria, where her, her father, and other Americans are doing their best to help the survivors. The two quickly fall in love, but when Armen decides to fight in the war, their relationship must withstand great distance and the uncertainty of whether they’ll ever meet again.

Of course, the reader knows that they’re eventually reunited, otherwise Laura would not have been born and able to share her memories of her grandparents. From describing delicious cheese boregs to offering anecdotes of contemporary tension between Armenians and Turks, I appreciated such a devotion to our culture.

Even though my own family escaped the genocide before the death marches began, I related so much to this story. Having Armenian ancestry seems to be essential to our people, whether they’re full-blooded Hyes (Armenians) or part-odars (outsiders). Bohjalian does an excellent job explaining the nuances of our diaspora, and I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to learn more about it.

Obviously, this book won’t be for everybody. If you have a weak constitution, you probably won’t be able to handle the graphic scenes of rape, torture, dismemberment, disease, and death. Before the pace picked up, I would have to read this story in small amounts, just to save myself from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed. As many other readers have pointed out, this is not a beach read, but it’s a read that makes you simply grateful that you’re alive.

Some have called The Sandcastle Girls formulaic and melodramatic, its characters annoying and two-dimensional. Others dislike the flipping back and forth between past and present. I, on the other hand, argue that the book effectively weaves together this family’s lineage, but whether it’s 1915 or 2012, people are not always likeable or relatable. They make mistakes, and this genocide was one of the biggest mistakes in human history.

It’s easy to call this a wartime love story, but I think it’s also disrespectful to narrow it down like that. Bohjalian simultaneously educates his audience with historical research and vividly paints the picture of the desolate desert where  over a million Armenians met their doom. I know that I’m biased, but The Sandcastle Girls is so much bigger than boy-meets-girl, and if you read it, I hope you’ll agree.

I won’t spoil the meaning of the book’s title, but I think that a sandcastle is an apt metaphor for Armenia. We may have been trodded and trampled on in the past, but we were a shining beacon of hope in that desert, and we’ll continue to rebuild. For a race to experience such horror, we have become even more industrious, hard-working, and thankful for each day.

And even if those who wish us ill try to demolish the sandcastle and brush away the sandy remains as if it had never existed, what they’ll fail to erase is our memories. That, to me, is the most powerful weapon of all.

Book Review: The Sandcastle Girls

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of the best feelings when you’re reading is when the story gains momentum and you just have to keep going until you finish it. This was one of those stories, and I’m so glad. As an Armenian, I had very high expectations of Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls, because it addresses the historical tragedy closest to my heart.

Bohjalian certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to discussing, as he puts it, “The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About.” Although Turkey, the United States, and various other countries refrain from calling the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians a “genocide,” that’s exactly what it was. Between 1915 and 1923, we lost over half of our population, forever impacting future generations.

These multiple generations are all included in The Sandcastle Girls, since the author writes two stories concurrently. Laura Petrosian is writing a novel in the present-day about her grandparents, Armenian engineer Armen Petrosian and Bostonian volunteer Elizabeth Endicott.

In 1915, Armen has escaped the clutches of the Turks, killing men and losing his wife and daughter in the process. He meets Elizabeth in Aleppo, Syria, where her, her father, and other Americans are doing their best to help the survivors. The two quickly fall in love, but when Armen decides to fight in the war, their relationship must withstand great distance and the uncertainty of whether they’ll ever meet again.

Of course, the reader knows that they’re eventually reunited, otherwise Laura would not have been born and able to share her memories of her grandparents. From describing delicious cheese boregs to offering anecdotes of contemporary tension between Armenians and Turks, I appreciated such a devotion to our culture.

Even though my own family escaped the genocide before the death marches began, I related so much to this story. Having Armenian ancestry seems to be essential to our people, whether they’re full-blooded Hyes (Armenians) or part-odars (outsiders). Bohjalian does an excellent job explaining the nuances of our diaspora, and I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to learn more about it.

Obviously, this book won’t be for everybody. If you have a weak constitution, you probably won’t be able to handle the graphic scenes of rape, torture, dismemberment, disease, and death. Before the pace picked up, I would have to read this story in small amounts, just to save myself from becoming too emotionally overwhelmed. As many other readers have pointed out, this is not a beach read, but it’s a read that makes you simply grateful that you’re alive.

Some have called The Sandcastle Girls formulaic and melodramatic, its characters annoying and two-dimensional. Others dislike the flipping back and forth between past and present. I, on the other hand, argue that the book effectively weaves together this family’s lineage, but whether it’s 1915 or 2012, people are not always likeable or relatable. They make mistakes, and this genocide was one of the biggest mistakes in human history.

It’s easy to call this a wartime love story, but I think it’s also disrespectful to narrow it down like that. Bohjalian simultaneously educates his audience with historical research and vividly paints the picture of the desolate desert where  over a million Armenians met their doom. I know that I’m biased, but The Sandcastle Girls is so much bigger than boy-meets-girl, and if you read it, I hope you’ll agree.

I won’t spoil the meaning of the book’s title, but I think that a sandcastle is an apt metaphor for Armenia. We may have been trodded and trampled on in the past, but we were a shining beacon of hope in that desert, and we’ll continue to rebuild. For a race to experience such horror, we have become even more industrious, hard-working, and thankful for each day.

And even if those who wish us ill try to demolish the sandcastle and brush away the sandy remains as if it had never existed, what they’ll fail to erase is our memories. That, to me, is the most powerful weapon of all.

Vote for My Last 5 Books of the Year!

Tonight I’m going to finish the final two chapters of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and I’m anticipating a very positive review because it’s been an excellent read so far. That means if you’ve been paying attention, I’m down to my last five books of the year! I read 20 books in 2011, and my goal this year was to read 25 (with The Hobbit as a bonus re-read before the movie release in December, if I can squeeze it in!).

I always love including my followers, so I’d like you to pick five books from my to-read list below, and the novels that receive the most votes will make up the rest of my 2012 reading! I’ll even label them by genre to make your decision-making a bit easier…

Romance/Chick-Lit

  • Deeply, Desperately by Heather Webber (sequel to Truly, Madly)
  • A Lot Like Love by Julie James (another novel in her FBI series)
  • Gilded Age by Claire McMillan

Literary/Historical Fiction

  • The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
  • The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Young Adult Fiction

  • Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer (final book in the series!)

Memoir

  • My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark

Classics

  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

So that’s eight books total, but you can only choose five! No additions, please, as I have already purchased all these books (or were given as birthday gifts) , and cannot afford to go broke on more! Hopefully, I’ll get around to your favorites eventually!

Book Review: The Paris Wife

Rating: 5 out of 5

I received The Paris Wife as a graduation gift from a friend, and I must say that it was a great gift indeed! This 2011 novel by Paula McLain narrates the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Even if you don’t know or like Hemingway all that much, you’ll enjoy McLain’s wonderfully written and researched novel.

The book starts off with Hadley, eight years Hemingway’s senior, falling in love with the writer despite warnings from their friend Kate Smith. The couple married in 1921, and the rest of the novel follows their travels across America and Europe during their five-year marriage.

I loved feeling like a fly on the wall watching the most famous artists and authors of the 1920s, including Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s noble how hard these people had to work to make a living with their words, but for some of them, it’s also tragic how all their fame and fortune masked deep, dark pain.

I empathized with Hadley, who never felt like she truly belonged to this group of literary giants. She called herself a hen among peacocks. And although she was a gifted pianist, she sacrificed her passions for Ernest’s career. I can understand Hemingway’s fierce devotion to his craft, but his selfishness and narcissism destroyed his marriage and most of his friendships.

I read The Paris Wife, knowing the basics behind Hemingway and his work, but McLain really brings the details to life, illuminating the atmospheres of France, Spain, and Germany. I felt that it was an accurate portrayal of the historical events and characters, but it was also so much more than that.

The emotion in this story was so honest and beautiful. It broke my heart witnessing Hadley and Hem suffer from depression, alcoholism, and extramarital affairs. Hadley gave everything to her husband, content with raising their son rather than share the spotlight, but their relationship collapsed due to Hem’s refusal to compromise and remain faithful.

Hadley could be criticized for allowing herself to be treated like a doormat, but she knew that she was a romantic in a modern world of promiscuity and partying. She may have wanted a simple life, but at least she remained true to herself. While Hem first resisted and then dove into the good life of the literary elites, Hadley was never impressed by the lifestyle. Instead of following other wives and entering into a perverse three-way with her husband’s mistress, she walked away. Lesser women would’ve accepted such behavior to be Mrs. Hemingway, so I admire her courage to start over.

Hadley stated that she may be just “the Paris wife,” but she got the best of Hem. In the end, she found true love with journalist Paul Mowrer, married from 1933 to her natural death in 1979. Hemingway, on the other hand, skyrocketed as an author but spiraled down into three more unsuccessful marriages and suicide by shooting.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much, since Hemingway’s downfall is just as famous as his writing. A man traumatized by his experiences as a soldier during World War I and his own father’s suicide, he paid the ultimate price for being one of the greatest American writers of all time.

Trust me, you might think you know this story, but you will still be amazed by The Paris Wife. Highly recommended!