Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoI wasn’t going to recommend this book, but there are a few things that have led me to change my mind and this recommendation will be a bit different that any of my previous ones.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is not like anything I’ve really read before. In a way, it seems like a combination of several books I’ve read but with a little something extra (or omitted). This book was released in 2005 and was later adapted into a 2010 film.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a name that came onto my radar several years ago but I had never read any of his work. I can’t recall exactly how I came across his name. It could have been from others talking about his books or the fact he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, but now that I’m actually trying to recall how his name came to my memory I think it was some association with Neil Gaiman.

However it happened, I knew of him as a respected author and therefore picked up Never Let Me Go from a library book sale simply because I wanted to eventually read some of his work. Ironically enough, I recently finished a book of nonfiction by Margaret Atwood where she actually discussed this very book. I realized I had it on my shelf and it became my next read.

I enjoyed the book because it was well written and it held an underlying mystery throughout that kept you interested in the story. The book technically would fall into a science fiction dystopia category considering the subject matter, but I will get into that a bit later. For now, I will supply a brief summary adapted from the book itself:

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham. It was a place of mysterious rules. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman and Ruth and Tommy have re-entered her life. She begins to look back at their time at Hailsham and comes to understand how they were special.

As I said, the story is written well and there is enough mystery to keep interest, but it can be considered a bit slow story-wise despite being a fairly quick read being just shy of 300 pages. Here is where this book recommendation goes off my regular pattern. After this paragraph, I will include spoilers so if you want to stop here and enjoy the book yourself, please do so and I bid you happy reading. If you have already read the book or don’t care much about spoilers, then feel free to read ahead. Continue reading

We

WeWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a strange, wild ride that I can only describe as a mixture of Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s 1984. Though We was published long before either of these books were even beginning to be written. It likely influenced Rand and Orwell when writing their own novels. We was written and published exactly 100 years ago and has an interesting history of its own. It was first translated and published in English in 1924, but it almost didn’t get published or survive the political changes happening in Russia after the first World War.

There are strong elements of Russian communism within the novel but the novel as a whole offers a critique of the political system, which created tension between Zamyatin and his own country. In fact, the international publication of We became the reason the Russian government began repressing writers in 1929. Zamyatin elected a self-imposed exile after this book was attacked and removed from Soviet libraries and he was forbidden to publish any future work. He and his wife moved to Paris (with permission from Stalin) in 1931. He later died in 1937 never returning to the country he considered home.

The novel was written at the beginning of what we now know as the communist period of Russian history. We was an examination into a future where such a political system was made perfect, at least in reference to the citizens becoming merely parts of a whole known as The One State. The citizen’s live within a walled city and their days are mapped by the hour and the schedule is strictly followed. Their apartment-style living quarters are made of a futuristic glass material allowing absolutely no privacy. They are all furnished minimally and in exactly the same way. However, there are blinds, but they can only be drawn when an approved “pink ticket” is inserted. This provides privacy for one hour and the tickets are approved only for sexual activity.

Our lead character, D-503, gradually faces changes to his own conditioned way of thinking. The number designation, instead of a name, is echoed in Rand’s Anthem which also presents a society focused on a collective instead of the individual but with different results. I noticed a handful of similarities in plot with Orwell’s 1984However, and again, We preceded both of these novels, but I must admit I liked the latter novels more. We does present its own, intriguing dystopian vision which is important in its own way.

The book did get fairly abstract at times, especially since it is written in journal form through the perspective of D-503 and often uses mathematics to make analogies. They are easily understood but several entries are not fully formed or lack description. I cannot say whether or not the translation from Russian into English accounts for the lack of clarity or if it was written that way with purpose. I’ll let you be the judge.

If you are a fan of dystopian novels, which I must admit that I am, you will likely enjoy this book. Dystopian novels are unique because they offer a vision into an imagined future based on events from our own history. They are a commentary of the time they were written but set in worlds where practices of that time, often injustices, are allowed to persist and become normal behaviors within futuristic societies. They are written almost as warnings of what may come to pass. The same applies here but perhaps with more historical contexts.

But it is up to you if you decide to read it. I am merely providing some information that may help you make that decision. Perhaps this is the first time you have heard of this book. I know I only discovered it recently and likely never would have heard of it if I hadn’t read a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin. Should you take the plunge into this strange world, I hope you enjoy it or at least take something of value from its pages.

Happy Reading.

The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaids_taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood popped on my radar a few years ago when it was being adapted for television. I didn’t know much about it at the time and only learned a few tidbits before I decided to read the book. All I really knew was that the main character was a woman who was considered special because she could bear children in a world where that was supposedly rare, and that it took place in a dystopian future. I do like dystopian novels, but what really made we decide to read this book was Margaret Atwood herself. She didn’t personally recommend it to me (though I wish I could meet her). I took her Masterclass on writing a few months ago. She did use this book as a case study for a few instances, but I came to find her as a person simply charming. I’d never read anything by her and didn’t now much about her before this class, so I thought I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale to see if I would like her writing. I almost chose Oryx and Crake but it was book one of a trilogy so I decided to save that series for later. It has joined my extensive to-read list.

I do not include spoilers about the story itself, but I do describe aspects of the dystopian society, which could be considered spoilers. So…*Spoiler Warning*

The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985 and tells of a world where the United States is changed into the nation of Gilead via a military coup with a deeply religious foundation. The issue of declining birth rates had already been taking place and various other issues are alluded to such as mass nuclear contamination in many areas and the reduction of sea life to near non-existent levels. So basically the world was declining drastically before this takeover. Many people were persecuted and exiled. Many tried escaping when things got really bad, but this book focuses on a Handmaid.

Women are all segregated into classes and men have dominant roles in the new society. A Handmaid is a woman who has the potential to give birth and they are, as Atwood describes, essentially just a walking womb. They have a special role in this society but are also held to the highest standard. They are surrogate mothers in a society that opposes in-vitro fertilization.

Needless to say, this book can be disturbing. The little information we get about the gradual change of the society is what, I think, was one of the most frightening aspects. The Constitution gets suspended and life goes on as usual, but small changes start to occur. Then larger ones. Some people try to resist but are suppressed quickly and often lethally. What I think is so disturbing is that this drastic change of society by a large, violent group is very realistic. I like to think something like this could not happen, but Atwood dispels that doubt with her descriptions. The society itself and the way women are used is also quite disturbing. Women are reduced to nothing but their biological abilities. They are used as cooks and to run households if they cannot bear children, but outside of that they have no liberties. They are practically sentenced to death if they are deemed non-compliant. Men also have to watch their backs, but they can still live somewhat normal lives with a certain level of freedom.

One thing that did take some getting used to was the first-person character who also acts as narrator. There are very few quotation marks used in this book. I think many people have a hard time with this since there are instances where the quotation marks are used but most of the time they are not even when a conversation is taking place. As I said, it took a little bit to get used to it, but once I was it didn’t bother me much. I think the lack of the quotation marks makes the descriptions and scenes actually stronger or more disturbing. It’s a style choice. Some like it, some don’t. I personally did not think it was a big deal.

Atwood shows her mastery of the craft in this book with her pacing. She builds her dystopian world and makes it intriguing despite its horrors, but she also provides information about the characters and changes to the society in small bursts throughout the story. Therefore, you are always learning more and getting questions answered as you read.

Great dystopian stories often read as timeless (and also allude to a war going on somewhere in the background of the story). This one can be ‘dated’ to the late 1900’s or early 2000’s fairly easily, but it reads timelessly as if the story could take place not far into our future. Dystopian stories are, I think, supposed to show us a possible future that we should absolutely try to avoid. They are often extreme futures, but more importantly they comment on the world we live in (or the issues of the time they were written). This book is definitely a commentary on gender in society. It comments on many other things as well, such as sex, but the core is gender disparities. I guess you could almost compare this book to Brave New World. At least, to say that the societies are opposites. You could say the society in this book took great steps to prevent what would possibly become the society we see in Brave New World. Instead of rampant drug use and orgies and ‘everyone must be happy,’ we get an authoritarian Big Brother where sex is only an act that should be used to create life and love or any other abstract feelings should be suppressed. So…yes, it’s more like 1984. 

I recommend this book because, as like many dystopian books, it makes you think about society in various ways. This book is a bit more disturbing than others, but for a purpose, and I think it is disturbing because it is hitting close to home on many issues we see today. Issues that were probably more prominent in the 1980’s. It is meant to make you think. Not about some fictional future but of our current issues and our past. To make us look closely and see what we may have been previously ignorant of. Hopefully, it will expand your mind and let you see the world you live in a little more clearly. Hopefully, it will encourage you to help make the world a little better than it currently is.

Happy Reading.

1984

1984This week’s book recommendation is 1984 by George Orwell. I’m was actually surprised that I haven’t recommended this book before now. Many think the title 1984 is an inversion of the last two digits of the year it was written, which was 1948 (published in 1949), but I’m not sure this was ever confirmed.

This book takes place in a dystopian future where the world is continually at war (as is common in many dystopian futures). The war is referenced but not really commented on besides how it is used to oppress the people and explain shortages of everyday items such as chocolate or razer blades. You may have heard some of the terminology from this book, such as Newspeak, Thought Police, and Big Brother. The popular slogan of the government in the book is also something you may have heard. It goes:

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

This book is thought-provoking in many ways and shows both what a human, and human society, can endure under an oppressive establishment. It also highlights humanity’s desire to be free and independent. There are several concerning things that are considered common practice in this dystopia. The most frightening for me was the main character’s occupation. Winston Smith works in a government building where his job is to “correct” past news articles to align with the current government’s views and actions.

For instance, he changes something as trivial as the chocolate ration. An article a few months earlier state that the ration has been changed from two bars a day to one bar (I’m paraphrasing this just to give an example so don’t quote me). The government, aka Big Brother, is reducing the ration again to only half a bar, so Winston is given an article to change. He changes it to read that the ration was actually one-quarter of a bar several months ago. So now, the people will read and believe that the new ration of half a bar is actually an increase in chocolate and they will all be happy about this improvement despite the reality that they will be getting less. There is a whole department dedicated to the changing of past information. This is terrifying on so many levels.

Ironically, 1984 returned to the bestsellers list last year (2017) because of today’s political climate. I first read it a few years earlier (maybe 2015). Despite the sometimes somber content, I enjoyed it because it was interesting, thought-provoking (I like pondering new ideas), but also frightening because there have been some countries in the world that may have experienced similar events in the past.

This book was banned in Russia in 1950. Even owning a copy at the time was cause for arrest because it was considered anti-communist propaganda. It was also banned in several countries in Europe at this time along with Orwell’s novella Animal Farm, which was also considered a political commentary.

I couldn’t imagine reading this book and realizing I would be living certain aspects of it. I’m thankful I can read it comfortably and allow it to improve my understanding of the world, people, society, the past, and allow me to understand how fragile information can be. It makes me feel responsible to ensure that facts aren’t muddled when there is irrefutable evidence. It also makes me feel responsible for my neighbors. To stand up if anyone tries to take away their freedoms, even if mine are in no way threatened. This book is both a warning and a call to action to prevent injustices.

Most of this book follows Winston as he tries to live a better life without being caught for his indiscretions against the state. He attempts to love someone he shouldn’t. He goes places he otherwise wouldn’t be allowed. He does things any of us would, but he has to always be looking over his shoulder. You may be surprised how this book ends, but I hope it makes you think. After all, some of the best books help us grow.

Happy Reading.

Anthem

AnthemThis week’s book recommendation is Anthem by Ayn Rand. This is actually a novella coming in at 108 pages, and was nominated for a Retro Hugo award for Best Novella as it was published in 1938. This story takes place in a dystopian future where humanity has entered a Dark Age. In this Dark Age, people don’t have names but rather designations and are also designated a job to perform in the society.

The main character is called Equality 7-2521 who works as part of the Home of the Street Sweepers. What made this story especially interesting is the lack of individuality and the use of language within the society Mr. Equality lives in. They do not have words for individuals. They exclusively use plural pronouns (such as “we”, “our”, “they”) when speaking to each other or of themselves. This solidifies the mentality of humanity as a collective and also snuffs out any thoughts of being unique. The strict rules of course don’t sit well with the main character as he discovers his individuality and the story ensues.

This novella was interesting and I read it in maybe a couple of hours. Because this story is in the public domain, I can offer you a free pdf of this novella. Here you go: Anthem by Ayn Rand

Happy Reading.