Thursday, November 4, 2004

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a dystopia written in 1985 that magnifies and exaggerates social trends to a dangerous end. This book was very difficult for me to read, but I am so glad that I read it. It’s a story every woman should read. It will chill you; it will scare you; it will make sure you don’t take anything for granted.

The protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale is named Offred. She is a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Her sole duty is to bear the offspring of the Commander. Women are not allowed to have money or hold jobs, and they have designated duties based on their fertility. Once Offred had a job and a family, but after a political coup, she was separated from them, and her life was changed forever. The reader follows Offred’s experiences, shares her memories, and tries from her limited perspective to find some hope to hang on to.

Purchase and read books by Margaret Atwood:

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt

On Fortune's Wheel (1990) by Cynthia Voigt is the second novel in her Kingdom series, which is set in the medieval period. It’s the story of Birle, a headstrong young girl who is the daughter of an innkeeper. To escape her life at the inn, Birle has promised to marry a huntsman named Muir. Though her parents believe Birle is making a poor choice, she takes longer to realize it.

Birle’s adventure begins when she hears a noise outside and rushes out to stop a thief. This thief is actually a young Lord named Orien, who is escaping from his family. Orien and Birle are swept off together to a new land, and they are captured, separated, and enslaved. Birle is sold to a philosopher; she does the housework and helps the philosopher with his book on herbs and medicines. Meanwhile, Orien’s owners are not as kind. Birle tries to plan their escape home.

The story takes place a generation after Voigt’s Jackaroo, a book I read years ago. I did not realize that Voigt had written other novels set in “the Kingdom.” In all, these books include: 1) Jackaroo, 2) On Fortune's Wheel, 3) The Wings of a Falcon, and 4) Elske.

The Kingdom series was since re-published with new titles: Jackaroo was re-published as The Tale of Gwyn, On Fortune's Wheel was re-published The Tale of Birle, The Wings of a Falcon was re-published as The Tale of Oriel, and Elske was re-published as The Tale of Elske.

On Fortune’s Wheel is a quick read and a good young adult story. Birle grows up through her adventures into a strong, steady, and decisive woman.

Purchase and read books in the Kingdom series by Cynthia Voigt:

Jackaroo by Cynthia Voigt On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt The Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt Elske by Cynthia Voigt

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story by Henry James, which was originally published in 1898. The novel opens with a group of friends who are telling ghost stories. After hearing a ghost story involving a child, a man named Douglas proposes to tell the group a true story about two children. Douglas asks the party to wait for a manuscript to be delivered to him. He explains that the story was written by a woman who was once his sister’s governess and that it describes events in her life. Douglas was in love with the governess. She is now dead, but members of the group realize that Douglas still has strong feelings for her.

Days later, the manuscript arrives, and the story begins. The entire story is told from the point of view of the Bly governess. Because of this narrative construction, the reader must evaluate the honesty of the story. It reminded me of the narration of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

The governess takes a job caring for two children at Bly. The one condition of her job is that she must never speak to the Master of the house about the children, who are his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles. The governess agrees to these bizarre conditions and falls in love at first sight with the Master. She befriends Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper.

When ten-year-old Miles is expelled from school, he joins his eight-year-old sister at home. Soon, strange events begin occurring. The governess sees two ghosts, Peter Quint (the former gardener) and Miss Jessel (the former governess). The governess takes it upon herself to protect the children from the ghosts and believes the ghosts and children are communicating with one another. But through her actions, will the governess help or hurt the children?

I think the greatness of this story is how mysteriously vague it is. It left me with so many questions. Is the governess crazy? Are the children crazy or possessed? Are there really ghosts? When the governess speaks to the children, do they know which "he" and "she" the governess is asking them about, and vice versa? I wondered if the characters understood one another, and how much of the conversations were one-sided. The governess makes many presumptions. For instance, she never asks why Miles was expelled from school. At first, the governess believes Miles is an angel and then she later thinks he’s a demon, but how much did the boy’s behavior really change?

Looking back, most of the motivations, especially those of the children are coaxed. For instance, at the lake, is Flora really possessed and ugly, or is she just scared of her freakish and unrelenting governess? The children may be biding their time until their Uncle arrives, thinking that the governess mails their letters and that he's busy. Meanwhile, the governess has hoarded their letters.

I wondered how the governess identified the ghosts. Mrs. Grose recognized Peter Quint upon hearing his description, but the governess pounced on the idea and furthered it rapidly. The governess also leapt at the idea of Miss Jessel being one of the ghosts with little rationale. One thing that I found odd was the episode involving crying on the steps. The governess first sees Miss Jessel cry there, and later she cries in the same location. What did this repetition mean? Was it to show how similar Miss Jessel and governess were in temperament and position, or did it serve some other purpose? Is Miss Jessel simply the governess's idea of herself or what she could become?

The governess's love of the Master is also inexplicable. Does she truly feel his love is reciprocated through his disinterest? Does Mrs. Grose understand that the governess is in love with the Master? In addition, the governess was so worried about Miss Jessel and Peter Quint controlling the children, but she did the same thing. The governess was definitely strange, but it's impossible to argue that the children were not. They were equally strange.

In the closing scene, did either Miles or the governess name Miss Jessel? I wasn't sure who said it. The use of "he" and "she" leave almost any scenario possible.

After I finished the novel, I came up with a strange idea in trying to connect the prologue to the main story. I began wondering if Miles was really Douglas and if Miles did not die at the story’s conclusion. I went back to the prologue and re-read it. I was surprised that there was no return to the story-telling group at the end of the story, and instead, the tale just ended. Douglas's description gives the impression that he was in love with the governess, putting his impartiality into question. He mentioned that the woman was his younger sister's governess, which made me wonder if his younger sister was Flora and if he was still-alive Miles. Of course, I may be over-reaching. The main purpose of the prologue may have been to put distance between the reader and the governess, and the use of the manuscript could have been a contrivance to tell such a long story.

Another thing puzzled me about the governess. After such a horrid experience, would she really want to seek a new position as a governess ever again? I surely wouldn't. I wonder also at the conditions the governess agreed to. She committed to go to an isolated house and raise two children she had never seen without ever being able to contact their only relation. Why would someone agree to that?

In reading theories online, one reader said that they believed that Mrs. Grose was in fact the children’s mother from an affair with the Uncle, and that the governess had taken control of the children from their mother by making her inferior in her own home. Stemming from this, it was suggested that Mrs. Grose was conniving to make the governess mad by planting ideas in her mind. Though I did not see this during my reading, I thought it was an interesting take.

The Turn of the Screw is one of those books that leaves you with many questions and an eerie feeling. It’s the type of book that demands re-reading.

Related Reviews:
Daisy Miller by Henry James
The Aspern Papers by Henry James

Purchase and read books by Henry James:

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James The Aspern Papers by Henry James Daisy Miller by Henry James The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Black and White Portrait of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, provided to the Nobel Foundation by U.S National Library of Medicine, History of Medicine Division, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) was a Spanish scientist. He made groundbreaking discoveries on the anatomy of the brain and nervous system. For his pioneering scientific research, Cajal received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906 with Camillo Golgi.

Three drawings by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, taken from the book Comparative study of the sensory areas of the human cortexPublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three drawings by Santiago Ramon y Cajal from the book Comparative Study of the Sensory Areas of the Human Cortex (1899). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cajal made many beautiful and detailed studies of the microscopic structures of neurons and the brain. One example, shown above, are his detailed drawings showing a comparative study of the areas of the human cortex. The left panel shows the Nissl-stained visual cortex of a human adult. The middle panel shows the Nissl-stained motor cortex of a human adult. The right panel shows a Golgi-stained cortex of a 1 1/2-month-old infant.

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal book cover

In Advice for a Young Investigator (1897), Santiago Ramon y Cajal provides encouragement for scientists, particularly new investigators. Many parts of the book were humorous, in particular the characterizations of scientists and the impediments in the way of scientific progress. Cajal wrote his advice for an audience of male scientists (he considers women helpmates). However, ignoring the sexism of the time, Cajal’s advice and teachings can be applied by women scientists too.

Purchase and read books by and about Santiago Ramon y Cajal:

Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal Comparative Study of the Sensory Areas of the Human Cortex by Santiago Ramón y Cajal The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramon y Cajal by Larry W. Swanson and Eric Newman The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal by Benjamin Ehrlich

Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen

Photograph from The Trumpeter Swan: A White Perfection by Skylar Hansen

The Trumpeter Swan: A White Perfection (1984) is a book by Skylar Hansen about four trumpeter swan breeding pairs. The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) is the largest waterfowl species in North America. Hansen observed and photographed the birds and their offspring for a year, paying particular attention to parenting behaviors and offspring survival.

The male swans are called "cobs," and the females are termed "pens." Although the birds once had a vast range that covered most of Canada and the northern United States, their breeding grounds are now localized in small regions. Once the cob and pen form pair bonds, the swans nest together for life. They form strong attachments to their nest sites and guard their nesting territory fiercely.

I hadn’t read a book about nature and wildlife for so long. This book reminded me of what I'd been missing. My favorite thing about the book was the photographs. The photos were all taken by the author, and they were striking and beautiful.

Purchase and read The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen:

The Trumpeter Swan by Skylar Hansen

Sunday, May 2, 2004

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) tells the story of two French missionary priests, Bishop Jean Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant, who aim to establish a Roman Catholic diocese in New Mexico. It is a work of historical fiction. Cather roughly based these characters on Jean-Baptiste Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, the first Bishop of Denver.

Latour and Vaillant were childhood friends. In contrast to Latour, who is serious and introverted, Vaillant is charismatic and outgoing. Both men are deeply committed to their work. Latour and Vaillant are responsible for a vast area of the Southwest. There are no roads or trains in the region yet, and there is no set way to travel, which makes their journeys difficult. The two French priests face many adventures and challenges in their work. The men are isolated in their tasks and goals, and both Latour and Vaillant are admirable protagonists.

In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather depicts the vastness of the Southwest and its mix of different people, cultures, religions, and traditions. Cather’s writing allows you to feel as though you are in New Mexico, whether you have ever visited the region or not. There is deep symbolism in the novel. For example, characters depict the seven deadly sins in story form. Cather also inserts some historical characters in her narrative. For instance, she includes Kit Carson as a character.

Early on, Father Latour feels disconnected from the land in the southwest. He plants an orchard to feel at home. In his later years, he appreciates the wilderness itself, choosing to remain in New Mexico instead of returning to France to die. His crisis in faith is moving, as is his longing for his dear friend after Vaillant leaves Santa Fe. Through it all, Latour remains committed to his goal of building a cathedral as a mark upon the wilderness.

The novel is a beautiful story of friendship, devotion, goodness, and commitment to a higher purpose.

Favorite Quotes:
"'To fulfil the dreams of one's youth; that is the best that can happen to a man. No worldly success can take the place of that.'"

"A wave of feeling passed over his bronze features as he said slowly:
'My friend has come.'
That was all, but it was everything; welcome, confidence, appreciation."

"One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."

"These raindrops, Father Latour kept thinking, were the shape of tadpoles, and they broke against his nose and cheeks, exploding with a splash, as if they were hollow and full of air."

"...it was the Indian's way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air."

"But Jean, who was at ease in society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few."

"'Once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger.'"

"That air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after his day. He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it. Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!"

Related Reviews:
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Purchase and read books by Willa Cather:

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather A Lost Lady by Willa Cather O Pioneers! by Willa Cather