Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale: Let's all put on shorts and use paper money

It's weird. I'm aware that this is quite a GOOD book. And yet . . .

The deal here is that it's the future, and culture has regressed to a sort of puritanical, uber-religious state, the most distressing feature of which is that women are property, to the point of being stripped of their names and assigned generic Biblical names in keeping with their given social position.


Because pollution has rendered many men and women sterile (just don't suggest that the men are sterile, because this must all be the fault of the sinful WOMENS), the upper-level childless households are each assigned a handmaiden to act as a surrogate. The handmaiden's sole job is to get knocked up. And this morally debatable practice is justified as so many things are—using the Bible . . . because of that whole Abraham and Hagar thing.

Because that turned out SO WELL for everyone.

The particular handmaiden telling this tale gives us glimpses into how society transitioned from women-working-and-smoking-and-wearing-tennis-shoes to women-wearing-full-skirts-and-veils-and-being-absolutely-forbidden-to-read. In this present, women are divided into categories and color-coded accordingly (wives in blue, handmaidens in red, cooks in hospital green, etc.). Some women have more freedom than others, but none are free. For example, the women with the highest quality of life in this new society are the Commanders' wives. But their very special burden is that they each must house another woman and welcome her into their marital bed (once a month, in a very unsexy sort of ceremonial threesome). They, too, are miserable and bitter.

And that's one of the most compelling themes, I think (among many). The way that women, finding themselves in the same marginalized and repressive circumstances, will so often choose to go for each other's throats, rather than drawing strength from their shared misfortune and channeling their anger toward the actual oppressor.

When we boob-fight, the enemy wins.

It may also be important to mention here that men as a whole aren't demonized in the book. There are a few good eggs. And mostly, I think they just got swept up in it all—as I imagine many of the everyday citizens of Nazi Germany did, for example.

I hadn't previously read any Margaret Atwood, but people seem to think she's pretty swell. And dystopian-future fiction is my jam. So I was all geared up to love the modest red dress off this book. And while I greatly admire the tailoring and structure of the red dress, I will not be purchasing one of my own. How did I end up in this metaphor?

Anyway, important themes, good writing . . . but it didn't suck me in OR blow me away (don't be dirty).

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Readathon Play-by-Play: In which I tell you about things that happened hours ago

For those of you who don't know, today is Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon, hosted by these fine people. I am participating in my own way . . . which is to say, not very well. And here is what has happened so far. (I'll give you a hint: noooot a whole lot of reading.)

Haaaa . . . I'm not reading all these.

5:30 a.m.

Why is it so early? It’s obscene how early it is. I’ve actually been awake since 5:12, but I spent about 20 minutes taking pictures of the dogs . . . because of reasons. Also, Paco and Gizmo are lying solidly across my legs, so getting up for coffee isn’t so much an option quite yet. So yeah . . . let’s read some Handmaid’s Tale! *suppresses urge to laugh hysterically*

"Explain yourself, human."

5:50 a.m.

Yeeeeah . . . I’m gonna need some coffee. Shove off, mutts.

Pages read: 17 in A Handmaid's Tale

Things consumed: Not one damn thing

7:12 a.m.

I have acquired coffee. I have consumed foodstuffs. I have read a chapter in The Half-Blood Prince. And now I’m back in bed wanting very much to return to my slumber. Must be time to read a comic or something.

Princess Aurora and Dumbledore. I would ship that.

Pages read: 24 in The Half-Blood Prince

Things consumed: 1 fried egg, 2 fake sausage patties, 1 coffee with Cool Whip (= fancy)

9:30 a.m.

Like any good thon-er, I'm bailing 4 hours in for a Filipino-style feast to celebrate a child's 1st birthday. There will likely be an entire roasted pig. Be back soon!

5 p.m.

Erm . . . 6 hours later. But I read the entirety of Chew Vol. 1 in the car on the way there AND took a power nap. So my body is ready, as our dear friend of the greasy hair might say. Chew, by the way? Amazing. It has the MOST delightful illustrations.

Pages read: 128 

Things consumed: fried rice, chow mein, Thai salad w/ peanut dressing, various Filipino desserts, blue cotton candy

And now I journey homeward, where I have plentiful snacks and comfy seating options but, alas, no Internet. Just pretend I'm reading ALL the books and being awesome and not just swiping lazily at my phone screen. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Readalong 1: I would name MY Pygmy Puff "Tribble"

I don't know if I'm still recovering from the end of Order of the Phoenix or if Jupiter is in retrograde or my panties are in a twist, but all I have for you today are bullet points. Bullet points squeezed from what's left of my shriveled little raisin of a heart.
We hardly knew thee.
  • Why does Narcissa Malfoy look exactly like her husband? I know there's a good deal of in-breeding in Wizarding World, but the physical evidence suggests that they are twins. And this might explain the curious shape of Draco's head.
  • Bellatrix and Snape, I'm sure Voldemort loves you both equally.
"But what use have you been?" sneered Bellatrix. "What useful information have we had from you?"
"My information has been conveyed directly to the Dark Lord," said Snape. "If he chooses not to share it with you"
"He shares everything with me!" said Bellatrix, firing up at once. "He calls me his most loyal, his most faithful"
"Does he?" said Snape, his voice delicately inflected to suggest his disbelief. "Does he still, after the fiasco at the Ministry?"
"That was not my fault!" said Bellatrix, flushing.
  • I rather like the sound of this sentence: "Narcissa looked up at him, her face eloquent with despair."
  • Even when the adult in question is of the naughty variety, it makes me uncomfortable when Harry mouths off. I would never, just never talk to a grown-up the way he talks to Narcissa in Madam Malkin's shop. I would, instead, quietly craft a passive-aggressive tweet to be posted at my earliest convenience.
  • This is the greatest: "Harry started to laugh. He heard a weak sort of moan beside him and looked around to see Mrs. Weasley gazing, dumbfounded, at the poster. Her lips moved silently, mouthing the name 'U-No-Poo.' 'They'll be murdered in their beds!' she whispered."
  • Ginny named her pink and/or purple Pygmy Puff "Arnold." Trevor and Arnold are sure to be the best of friends.
  • "The usual," said Ron indifferently, demonstrating a rude hand gesture. "Not like him, though, is it? Wellthat is"—he did the hand gesture again.
Just so we're clear . . . THIS rude hand gesture?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Redshirts: "Act and you shall have dinner; wait, and you shall be dinner"

I’ve been wanting to read John Scalzi for a while now, ever since I started closely associating him with Wil Wheaton (the Internet is a nutty place, you guys). But also, you know, he’s written a bunch of sci-fi novels and won the Hugo Award, in addition to working as creative consultant for Stargate: Universe. So this guy knows sci fi, is all I’m saying.

Redshirts, Scalzi’s most recent book, focuses on Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the Xenobiology lab on the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid. After just a short time on the Intrepid, it becomes apparent that working on this ship is . . . different. Every away mission to explore a new planet or answer a distress call or carry out any other routine task ends badly—as in, someone being eaten by a Borgovian Land Worm or mulched by a fleet of rogue robots. The thing is, the fatalities are limited to low-ranking crew members. The high-ranking officers, while often dramatically injured/attacked by an alien virus/infected with a painful STD, inexplicably survive these missions every time. Dahl and his friends set out to discover what's behind this curious pattern and how to avoid becoming the next away-mission casualties.

This book is best described as an extended and supremely terrible episode of Star Trek, which is 100% intentional on Scalzi’s part (according to me, who apparently feels entitled to speak for Scalzi). It has all the fantastical sci-fi elements and cheezy dialogue that characterize practically every episode of Star Trek ever. And page 14 made me honk . . . like a laughing goose.

But despite all these things . . . I just didn’t love it. I realized this at about page 150, when I put the book down in what is essentially the THICK of the plot and didn’t really care to pick it back up again.

But I did pick it back up. I sufficiently enjoyed the last 50 pages. And there’s a whole section toward the end that employs second person effectively, for which props MUST be given.

The highest of fives for you, sir.

So I super-enjoyed the beginning, was somewhat bored with the middle, and regular-enjoyed the end. And this review will be of absolutely no help to you in deciding whether or not to read the book.

A brief note on the editing: I really tried not to mention this, because it seems kind of petty. But, Scalzi, your copy editor has done you a grave disservice. There are typos APLENTY throughout the book, and at one point there’s even a mix-up with the names of two major characters. This is stuff that really should have been caught by the person who was PAID TO DO SO. I’m sure you’re very sweet, Scalzi, since you thanked your copy editor by name in the “Acknowledgments” section. So I’ll take it upon myself to say what needs to be said here. Scalzi’s copy editor (whose name I know but will refrain from putting on the Internet in connection with the following words), Hab SoSlI' Quch. (That means “Your mother has a smooth forehead,” and I assure you it is QUITE an insult if you happen to be a Klingon.)

I'm sure she's a very nice person, this copy editor.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Readalong 4: The fate of the known world rests in the hands of a boy who doesn't unwrap his packages in a timely manner

We’re done with Order of the Phoenix. Our feels are bruised and battered, and yet we proceed stalwartly onward.

Here’s the haps, clicky: We learn that people with speech impediments cannot do magic (somewhere, Stephen Hawking is weeping silently); Dumbledore deserves all the hugs (“Harry looked up at him and saw a tear trickling down Dumbledore’s face into his long silver beard.”); I desire to know what the centaurs were doing with Umbridge for an entire night (and also don’t want to know even a little bit); “Lord Thingy” is the best Voldemort name substitute yet; Neville strokes his Mimbulus mimbletonia, and several readers find themselves wishing they were a gray cactus covered in oozy boils; and we learn that Harry had a two-way mirror with which to communicate directly with Sirius WRAPPED IN HIS SUITCASE FOR THE ENTIRETY OF THE BOOK.

But if you prefer to stick your head in a sworn enemy's fireplace,

I have for Hagrid some simple steps to making a good decision: (1) Don’t remove Grawp from the mountains. (2) Leave Grawp in the mountains. (3) If you MUST remove Grawp from the mountains, don’t bring Grawp near a school. (4) Don’t introduce your small friends to Grawp, that they may become tasty morsels in Grawp’s tummy.

But Hagrid has ignored all my advice. Just all of it.

Surely, this is the best sentence in all of literature:
“The baby-headed Death Eater had appeared in the doorway, his head bawling, his great fists flailing uncontrollably at everything around him.” (p. 793)
Also this:
“I doubt it,” shouted tiny Professor Marchbanks, “not if Dumbledore doesn’t want to be found! I should know. . . . Examined him personally in Transfiguration and Charms when he did N.E.W.T.s . . . Did things with a wand I’d never seen before . . .” (p. 711) 

Alice was asking me a few days ago who we should ship with Harry, in a perfect world where Ginny actually ends up with someone who deserves her. I still think Harry should probably be single forever, BUT I nominate Neville for the role of Best Friend (sorry, Ron).

Yes, ALL Harry’s friends are loyal, but in the Ministry of Magic, none were more loyal than our dear Neville. Not only does he repeatedly refuse to leave Harry’s side, but he bravely faces up to the loony woman who robbed him of his parents (and I become uncomfortably aroused for the eleventy-millionth time since this readalong began).

This enduring friendship makes sense on so many levels. Neville and Harry are both technical orphans, and loyal/stubborn Neville ultimately saves Harry’s life by jamming Hermione’s wand in McNair’s eyehole (you should probably give that a good polish back at the school, Hermione). But even more than that, Neville is essentially Alternate Universe Harry, because it could have been he who was destined to face off with Lord Voldemort, according to the prophecy and all that. And if events had panned out that way, and Voldemort HAD marked Neville instead of Harry, I think he would have kicked just as much ass as Harry, if not more. And there would have been weaponized flora involved.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Harry Potter and the Order of the Readalong 3: "Always listen to the woman."

We're three fourths of the way through Order of the Phoenix (minus maybe four chapters, because I have not finished this week's section), and here's the (partial) news from Wizard Town:

Ron gives Hermione perfume for Christmas (going steady); Hermione gives both Ron and Harry homework planners for Christmas (friend zone); Kreacher has a cherished photograph of Bellatrix in his hidey-hole (Kreacher and Bellatrix sitting in a tree, C-R-U-C-I-A-T-U-S-ing); even wizards aren't safe from the horrors of WebMD ("The various healers called out to them, diagnosing odd complaints and suggesting horrible remedies."); Sirius is no match for Snape in a war of words ("I've warned you, Snivellus." Nice try, Sirius.); occlumency is defense against . . . external penetration(?); and Harry stares into the fire and wishes "more than anything that Sirius's head would appear there and give him advice about girls."

I think Dumbledore knows more about the womens than Sirius does.

I think maybe Harry's angst is interfering with his ability to remember basic facts.
"You survived when you were just a baby," she said quietly.
"Yeah, well," said Harry wearily, moving toward the door, "I dunno why, nor does anyone else, so it's nothing to be proud of."
Uh . . . yeah, you DO know why you survived, and so does everyone else because Dumbledore told you at the end of the last book and probably a few other times before that. And I'm glad you think your mother's ultimate sacrifice is nothing to be proud of, YOU TWAT.

But it's OK, because within the span of 5 pages, he gets verbally spanked first by the painting of Phineas Nigellus and then by Ginny. And it. is. glorious.
"Young people are so infernally convinced that they are absolutely right about everything. Has it not occurred to you, my poor puffed-up popinjay, that there might be an excellent reason why the headmaster of Hogwarts is not confiding every tiny detail of his plans to you? Have you never paused, while feeling hard-done-by, to note that following Dumbledore's orders has never yet led you into harm? No. No, like all young people, you are quite sure that you alone feel and think, you alone recognize danger, you alone are the only one clever enough to realize what the Dark Lord may be planning. . . ." (p. 496)
Of course, this Truth Bomb ricochets right off of Harry's thick head. But the Ginny Sniper Rifle comes in and finishes him off.
"I didn't want anyone to talk to me," said Harry, who was feeling more and more nettled.
"Well that was a bit stupid of you," said Ginny angrily, "seeing as you don't know anyone but me who's been possessed by You-Know-Who, and I can tell you how it feels."
Harry remained quite still as the impact of these words hit him. Then he turned on the spot to face her.
"I forgot," he said.
"Lucky you," said Ginny coolly. (pp. 499-500)
I think we're done here.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Neuromancer: Silver lenses, finger blades, can't lose

I was working in a bookstore last September when William Gibson popped in to have a little chat and promote his book of articles and essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor. The sizable store was packed; people had traveled from San Diego and farther just for the opportunity to see this bespectacled man with the sneakers and sideways smile. And I had no idea who he was.

But I liked him.

That was the day I stood in front of the sci-fi section, full of titles and authors that sounded only vaguely familiar to me, and declared, "THIS SHALL NOT PASS."

And 4 months laterbecause I stick to my convictions eventually, dammitI picked up Neuromancer. This book, the first in the Sprawl series, came out in 1984 and has clearly been influencing contemporary sci fi ever since.

Our hero (or antihero, depending on how you feel about him) is Case, a 24-year-old ex-data-thief.
He'd operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief, he'd worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data. (p. 5)
Case: Working Data-Thief

When we find Case, he's stumbling around Japan's Night City with a weensy drug problem. You see, when he was 22, he broke the cardinal rule: Never steal from your employer. When they found out, they used a nerve agent to make sure he would never work in his chosen field again.
Strapped to a bed in a Memphis hotel, his talent burning out micron by micron, he hallucinated for thirty hours. . . .
For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh. (p. 6)
Case: Meat Prisoner
So when Molly, an assassin with silver lenses surgically inset over her eyes and retractable scalpel blades embedded under her nails, shows up with a seemingly impossible job that comes with an offer to get him back into the matrix, he figures he has nothing better to do. Plus, he rather likes the way her bum looks in those leather pants.

I'll be honest, guys. I didn't get into this book right away. I'm not used to sci fi, and this one definitely throws you into a Future World full of unfamiliar terminology and concepts, and offers very little explanation along the way. But I stuck with it, and the going got easier. And Molly got awesomer.

And I was glad for the chance to be in the same room with William Gibson before I knew who he was.