Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

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Image via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

There are a LOT of book bloggers out there, and I think it’s fair to say that most tend to be female students and post-grads who prefer to read young-adult fiction. Or at least, the bloggers I personally follow lean toward that genre, and who can blame them? Oftentimes, YA delivers stories that are more developed and complex than adult genre fiction, and YA dystopia in particular exploded after the publications of The Hunger Games and Divergent.

I would argue, however, that all modern dystopia owes its success to authors, such as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley–and more recently, to Margaret Atwood. Seriously, I have met this woman in person, and I have to say–if you have not read one of her novels yet, then what the hell are you doing with your life?

The Heart Goes Last is not my favorite Atwood novel (nothing will ever beat The Handmaid’s Tale, in my opinion), but it is an excellent dystopia with a premise that is becoming increasingly more likely, especially in the Bay Area where housing prices are skyrocketing.

The novel stars married couple Stan and Charmaine, who are unemployed and living out of their car after a major market crash left 40% of Americans without jobs. After fending off street gangs and facing the idea of an even bleaker future, it’s no surprise that they decide to join The Positron Project, in which they are provided free housing as long as every other month they live and work in a prison, alternating with another family that occupies the house while they’re doing time.

If you’re wondering why anyone would sign up for a project this strange, then I bet you’re not living in San Francisco, where the median 1-bedroom apartment rents for an astronomical $3,590/month and people are illegally living in trailers, storage containers, and even coffin-sized pods just to get by.

As with every dystopia, once starts off sweet eventually turns sour, and Stan and Charmaine are confronted with grave danger when they meet their Alternates. I won’t give too much away, but this book asks extremely difficult moral questions about how far you’d go to save your own skin.

What’s more interesting than the nefarious plot (which I felt could have had higher stakes) is that the core of this story is a lackluster marriage. It may take place in a “timeshare prison,” but the real issue is that both characters feel sexually frustrated after years and years of neglecting their relationship.

When my book club discussed The Heart Goes Last last week, we all agreed that we enjoyed putting ourselves in this couple’s shoes and determining what actions we would take if caught in the same predicament. Some felt that the plot was too slowly paced in the beginning, and others were disappointed by the ending, but overall we would definitely recommend the book. I’m proud that I’ve successfully persuaded more people to appreciate Atwood’s writing as much as I do!

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Margaret Atwood: Stand-Up Comedian?

On Monday night, I carpooled with a friend to the book signing of Margaret Atwood at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif., hosted by Peninsula Arts and Letters of Kepler’s Books. We got there just in time, or so I thought. By the time we arrived, the place was packed, and we were forced to find seats up in the balcony.

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Yes, that’s her on stage. Trust me.

All I kept thinking while we waited for her to walk across the stage was that most Americans never read and therefore have no idea who Margaret Atwood even is, but it was clear to this audience that we had a celebrity in our midst. And I’m still pinching myself that I had the opportunity to meet her!

Atwood is on a tour to promote her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, and we were the lucky ones who heard her read an excerpt of it for the very first time. This dystopian story features Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck and living in their car after a job loss, who sign up for the Positron Project, which Atwood described that evening as “a timeshare prison,” in which you alternate every month between a comfortable civilian home and incarceration.

Obviously, this alleged ‘win-win’ situation turns out not to be the answer to these characters’ prayers, and I can’t wait to read how Atwood tackles serious issues like unemployment and the prison-industrial complex with her famous wit.

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And now I’ve got her famous signature 🙂

I’m actually very disappointed that I did not live tweet this event, because Atwood was absolutely hilarious. She poked fun at the American presidential race, shared an amusing story about testing a virtual reality machine to fly like a bird, and discussed sex robots. She had so many one-liners, she could moonlight as a stand-up comedian.

At one point she was asked the question, “How does the development of your plots reflect the development of your themes?” and she replied sing-songingly, “I smell a term paper question!” At 75 years old, Atwood is at the IDGAF stage of her life, and I loved how down-to-earth she was.

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The queen in the flesh!

After the Q&A session, we waited in line to get our books signed, taking quick photos of the author on our smartphones. In the few seconds I had to talk to her, I mentioned that our book club just finished The Blind Assassin, and I enjoyed how she used the WWI reference “Remember the starving Armenians” in her story. Slightly confused because I forgot to mention that I’m Armenian myself, she replied, “They really used to say that back then!”

All in all, I had a wonderful time being in the presence of one of my literary heroes. And the cherry on top of this sundae? Going to bed with a huge smile on my face, because this happened:

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That’s right. Margaret Atwood retweeted me. My life officially has meaning now!

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!

Hail to the Queen! Margaret Atwood is Coming!

As I announced yesterday, I’m tackling my 2015 goal of attending more book signings with a vengeance, because in nine short weeks, I will be meeting the one and only Margaret Atwood!

Image via Fox Theatre

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a gift in my inbox: an invitation from Kepler’s Books & Magazines to an exclusive event starring the renowned writer of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.

As excited as a kid on Christmas morning, I immediately whipped out my credit card and purchased my ticket, which only cost $25 for general admission. I’m flabbergasted that I have the chance to meet one of my most admired authors for such a bargain.

Thus, on October 12th at 7:30 p.m., Margaret Atwood will be stopping by the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, Calif., to discuss her latest novel, The Heart Goes Last.

Image via Goodreads

Here is a book summary excerpted on the Fox Theatre’s website:

Visionary as always, Atwood imagines a setting that isn’t as implausible as we’d like it to be, one that will resonate particularly strongly with residents of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

In The Heart Goes Last, she chronicles a recently unemployed married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse, are living in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers.

But this is Margaret Atwood we’re talking about here… And with each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

I would love to have my book club read this novel once it’s published in late September, so that we can make this book signing our own little field trip!

If you’re in the Bay Area and would like to join us, click this link to purchase your ticket. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so don’t let it slip away!

My Top Ten All-Time Favorite (Living) Authors

Meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is about our all-time favorite authors, which is simply way too difficult for me to limit to ten people. Because I tend to prefer writers of long ago, I thought it best to narrow my selections from living authors rather than spend my time agonizing over the vast number of literary geniuses throughout history.

After much deliberation, here are my top ten favorite living authors!

(Note that to be one of my favorites, I had to have read more than one novel or series of theirs. Sorry, J.K. Rowling, no one-hit reads allowed!)

TTT Authors 1 TTT Authors 2

Literary Fiction

1. Kazuo Ishiguro
2. Margaret Atwood

Young Adult

3. Philip Pullman
4. David Levithan
5. Scott Westerfeld
6. Meg Cabot

Romance

7. Sophie Kinsella
8. Julie James
9. Vicki Lewis Thompson

Bonus genre! Manga

10. Yuu Watase

Book Review: The Buried Giant

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 4 out of 5

In anticipation of meeting Kazuo Ishiguro this Thursday, I’ve just completed his latest novel in ten years: The Buried Giant.

I have already discussed at length why I love Ishiguro’s writing so much in this recent blog post. Needless to say, after such a blockbuster success with his last novel Never Let Me Go, fans’ expectations were extremely high while reading this book!

The Buried Giant is yet another one of Ishiguro’s experiments with genre. It features Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in a mythical, post-Arthurian Britain. Due to a mysterious mist, people have fallen victim to forgetfulness: it’s not uncommon for the villagers to get riled up about something only to forget their troubles the next day.

Unsure of their estranged son’s whereabouts, or even if he is living or dead, Axl and Beatrice set off on a journey to find him. Along the way, they befriend a skilled Saxon warrior, his young cursed apprentice, and Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s court.

This misfit group of travelers face ogres, pixies, and other monsters, but once they discover the cause of this mist, they must confront an even more fearful obstacle–whether to regain their lost memories or continue living in blissful ignorance of the truth.

As you can probably tell, this is no ordinary fantasy tale. Ishiguro packs so much metaphor into this story that what’s more interesting is what’s going on between the lines. His use of simple, stilted dialogue gives the impression that these characters are allegorical, and you quickly adjust from asking yourself what this book is to what this book means.

By far, the most intriguing part of The Buried Giant is the insertion of Greek myth with the enigmatic boatman. Rumor has it that couples who do not share a most cherished memory do not get ferried together, so how do Axl and Beatrice avoid separation when they cannot remember the past?

Although I did not enjoy The Buried Giant as much as Never Let Me Go, it’s still a fascinating tale of love and loss, as well as an apt reminder that history does indeed repeat itself for a reason. This book may not fit in with others in the fantasy section, but it will make readers appreciate a unique kind of magic: our memories.

Book Review: When We Were Orphans

Image via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so becoming familiar with his writing again was a memorable experience. I was going to say “enjoyable,” but I didn’t think that was the right word. Ishiguro’s stories aren’t enjoyable in the sense that they’re lighthearted and easy to read. Far from it. But immersing yourself in the minds of his characters is a journey unlike any other.

When We Were Orphans, published in 2000follows the life of Christopher Banks, who was raised by his English parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai during the interwar period. They become embroiled in the opium trade, with his father inadvertently enabling it on one hand and his mother actively protesting it on the other. When they both mysteriously disappear and young Christopher is unceremoniously shipped back to England, it’s up to him to piece together the puzzle.

Christopher, fueled by his desire to rid the world of evil, becomes a renowned detective and eventually returns to Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. But with evil gaining too much momentum, by the time he solves the case of his missing parents, he has lost all hope of returning to his former life.

The pacing of this story was superb, starting off slowly as Ishiguro paints the picture of Christopher’s childhood playing make-believe with his close Japanese friend and next-door neighbor Akira, then deepening as he transitions from England back to Shanghai, and finally rushing chaotically through the heart-wrenching climax.

When everything is said and done, Christopher is orphaned once again, but the pain cuts so much deeper the second time, because it extinguishes any promise of a brighter future. Because we spend so much time looking through his eyes, even when we know that the world is mocking him, when the past is revealed we can’t help but feel fooled and utterly embarrassed that we ever considered an optimistic ending.

Critics have pointed out Ishiguro’s repeated use of the “unreliable narrator” in his work, but during this story, I felt that there was something inadequate about that concept. In an interview with January Magazine, Ishiguro explains:

The traditional unreliable narrator is that sort of narrator through whom you can almost measure the distance between their craziness and the proper world out there. That’s partly how that technique works, I think. You have to know that distance quite clearly. He [Christopher Banks] is perhaps not quite that sort of conventional unreliable narrator in the sense that it’s not very clear what’s going on out there. It’s more an attempt to paint a picture according to what the world would look like according to someone’s crazy logic. So a lot of the time the world actually adopts the craziness of his logic.

That’s precisely why I love Ishiguro: his writing is so enigmatic and multi-faceted, not because he’s attempting to recreate the world as it truly is, but rather he’s escaping into a world as one individual views it.

As a man born in Japan and raised in England, Ishiguro gravitates toward stories set during World War II. He has been quoted as being fascinated by what type of person he might have been if he was born one generation earlier. I highly recommend his acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day, as it also tells the tale of an Englishman trying to make sense of the tragedies he witnessed during the war.

Overall, I would say that Ishiguro is an acquired taste. You will never walk away from one of his works feeling a sense of resolution. But that’s what life is all about; it’s never fully understood. At one point in the novel, Christopher has the opportunity to leave Shanghai behind him and start life anew, but not for one second does the reader believe that he will abandon his pursuit. Life cannot start over, no matter how desperately we want it to.

“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”