Rambling Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was very hard to read. Not because it was poorly written or boring — that’s not the case at all. The story was intriguing and I was invested in the narrator’s plight. The end felt like such a cliffhanger that I audibly yelled “are you serious!” which scared my husband, but then I realized there was more to the story in a new section with a different perspective (so if you hit a snag near the end, keep reading — it’s not just end of book acknowledgements!).

No, the reason this book was so hard to read was its terrifying plausibility. Most dystopian novels are set in a far off future, after wars and bombs and viruses and apocalypses have utterly changed the face of the earth and how society runs. Some dystopian novels are a chilling commentary on where the world could be headed (think: 1984), but this is so much more immediate. The changes, the leeching of power from the people — or from certain types of people — are so subtle at first, so insignificant that by the time enough people start to question things, it’s far too late.

In a lot of dystopian stories, there is one dictator or a small group of “bad guys” lording it over the masses. The majority of the people don’t agree with their leadership, but are too downtrodden and tired to fight back. In The Handmaid’s Taleplenty of people agree with the new society. There are rumors of underground movements, sure, but most people seem supportive of the new order’s ideals.

The story is both intense and detached, told by a narrator who has nearly given up on everything that mattered to her in the world before. It is both resigned and angry, rebellious and cautious, disgusted and apathetic. It is a desperate warning wrapped up in inevitable possibility.

I had to take a lot of breaks while reading this one. It isn’t something you’ll binge-read for hours or enjoy while lounging on a beach. It’s a tale best told in snippets and whispers, with long silences to digest each piece of new information. It’s heavy with real-life foreboding, but I’m so glad I read it.

Rambling Review: The Virgin Suicides

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References to The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides kept popping up around me recently, so I decided to check out this modern classic for myself. I can’t deny I’m into darker/heavier stories like the synopsis suggests (5 sisters kill themselves within a single year) and was intrigued right off the bat by a collective narrator (the story is told by the neighborhood boys as a whole).

Because it’s a relatively slim paperback, I brought it along on vacation, intending to read it on the beach or during down-time between activities. This encouraged a lot of horrified feedback from my friends, who always ask what I’m reading. They then spent the week checking in by asking “how many girls have died now?” then following my answer up with a head shake and a “why do you read stuff like that?”  That’s how I discovered pretty much my entire group of friends consists of happy, shiny people like my husband who prefer little depth and pain in their entertainment.

Leaving aside my friends’ responses, this is not a good beach read. In the way of most classics, the story needs your attention for good chunks of time. I found myself re-reading sentences and chapters and getting frustrated because I couldn’t devote more focus to it.

The story is beautifully written. There are some of the lovely descriptions and word-pictures that I love, and the fact that it’s like the neighborhood boys have sat me down to tell me their observations adds a touch of near-innocence to a tragic experience. Rather than being a novel about suicide, it’s more of a love letter to the sisters from the boys who grew up watching them.

It is sad. The parents are misguided and in my opinion arrogant in their negligence. The novel does discuss suicide, the ways the sisters end their lives, in just enough detail to make the reader uncomfortable without turning it into a caricature. Suicide should make a person uncomfortable to read about.

But it’s also a subject that is treated with respect. Eugenides captures the bewilderment and guilt and shock and grief that lingers over those left behind. The narrator shows how suicide affects a neighborhood, the process one goes through to try to understand something no one will explain outright.

It is a heavy book. It’s tragic and inevitable and beautiful. A modern classic, indeed.

Road-Trip Playlists

It’s officially summer. The perfect time for a road-trip. And what is a road-trip without music?

Not something I’d enjoy, that’s for sure. A good road-trip playlist is even more important than snacks — and this might be the only time I say ANYTHING is more important than snacks.

I will say, Spotify has a decent “Road Trip Sing-Along” playlist that was well-received by all four members of my most recent road-trip. We listened to it on shuffle so it was kind of all over the place between classic rock and throwback pop and more current hits, but pretty much every song was great.

Usually, I prefer to make my own playlists. For our upcoming two- to three-day drive to St. Louis from the D.C. area, I’ve already started on two different lists, and may now make a third.

When you first leave, everyone is usually super pumped to be on the road and looking forward to the adventures that await — both on the journey and at the destination. You’re amped and you want your music to reflect that energizing optimism. My first playlist is full of pump-up music like “Forgot About Dre” (because none of my road-trips — however long or short — is complete without it) and “Danza Kuduro”  and “Shake it Off”. It floods the car with aggressive beats to get you going.

But then the excitement wears off (especially if you’ve left early in the morning) and the pump-up playlist is too loud. So my follow-up playlist is mellow and calm. It’s got songs like “Cactus in the Valley” and “Swing Life Away” and pretty much anything by Fort Atlantic. It’s great to calm down the adrenaline from the previous playlist and encourage some naps from the passengers.

After the success of the pre-made Spotify road-trip playlist, though, I’m thinking I should put together a third playlist full of songs that are classic enough to spur some sing-alongs but also familiar enough to mindlessly hum or ignore altogether if a particularly good daydream comes along.

I can’t imagine life without music, and driving is nearly impossible for me if I don’t have some sort of tunes pumping through the speakers. If you haven’t already heard of the songs mentioned above, I’d highly recommend checking them out, and if you have any suggestions, send them my way. I’d love to hear what your “must-have” road-trip songs are!

Experiencing the Pacific Coast Highway

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One of my husband’s dreams is to drive the Pacific Coast Highway in a Miata with the top down. Last year, we had a rental Kia instead, but the drive to Big Sur wasn’t any less gorgeous.

I’ve always been in love with rocky coastlines. My parents grew up in Rhode Island, and every time we visit, as far back as I can remember, we take a trip to Beavertail to climb on the rocks and bask in the sun.

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Beavertail, RI

Naturally, I fell in love with the Pacific coast pretty much immediately. Our first trip to California, my husband and I drove down to Laguna from Long Beach, and I couldn’t get enough of the beauty of the more rugged beaches.

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Laguna Beach, CA

But nothing I’ve seen compares to the breathtaking views I experienced on the drive from San Fransisco to Big Sur.

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The water was so blue, the sky bright and the landscape vivid. I made my husband stop at pretty much every pull-off so I could get out and soak in the beauty (and snap a ridiculous amount of pictures).

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One thing photos don’t quite capture is the peace and the joy. A sense of familiarity, home in the purest sense of the word. It’s the same feeling I get as I’m pulling into the parking area in Beavertail. Sheer joy and excitement shoots my veins full of adrenaline, while an overwhelming peace calms every nerve in my body. It’s the most beautiful oxymoron in spiritual form.

It’s life, pure and simple.

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Rambling Reviews: These Vicious Masks

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Do you like the X-Men series? Do you like Victorian England? If not, this is not the book for you.

If, like me, you are intrigued, then let me tell you about These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas.

I became so hooked on the characters and their stories I immediately downloaded the sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) and let me tell you, this series does not disappoint. There are terrifying and clever powers, an explanation for such powers that is plausible yet not overly explained, and interesting characters who wield said powers. You’ve got a heroine who grapples with what it is to be a “hero” (and one might argue she doesn’t quite live up to the title) while stopping at nothing to reunite with her sister. You’ve got a charming suitor and a mysterious, brooding gentleman — Jane Austen would swoon — who trap our heroine in a delicious love triangle. Dangerous escapades and comic misadventures balance well throughout the novel, making for a quick and enjoyable read.

The writing is not flawless, and some things seem to wrap up too neatly, but nothing that sticks out as blaringly awful or even memorable once the story is through.

I adored the ending of the sequel. I won’t say anymore than that because I’ve tried wording my feelings a dozen times and I can’t figure out how to convey my thoughts without somehow spoiling it or creating an expectation that I did not have going into it, so I will leave it at that. It was fascinating.

The first book is $4.22 for paperback, $7.09 on Kindle ($14.89 for both books on Kindle). I highly recommend checking them out!

The Safety in Art

Some people — my husband among them — turn to art for an escape. They like light-hearted movies, happily ever afters, comical adventures, feel-good music. Life is hard enough and sad enough and real enough that they look for leisure activities that distract from reality.

For me, the best art makes me feel everything. Happiness, joy, hope — but also devastation, loss, fear, rage. Is it strange that I feel most alive when I’m drowning in a good book or being ravaged by good music?

The first time I saw Titanic (at like twelve years old), I wandered around the house, limp and weepy, for days. My parents said that was why I shouldn’t have watched it — I was too young, I couldn’t handle the tragedy. They didn’t understand I was celebrating it. It was the first time my heart had been trampled by a fiction-wrapped truth, and I knew I would never be able to experience true art any other way.

I want my heart clawed from my chest, dragged over broken bottles and ruptured sidewalks, then buried under hot coals before it’s returned to me, encased in scar tissue but beating ever stronger because it has felt what it is to live. Life is the pain as much as it is the triumph. It’s the breaking as well as the growing. The terror and the joy and I want it all.

Maybe it’s (weirdly, inexplicably) safer to feel over art. In life, we have to express a certain measure of toughness. Can’t let them see me cry, can’t scream, can’t swear or rage or beat someone with a baseball bat. But in art, we can. Listening to the right song at the gym gets us running faster, shadow-boxing harder. If I come home with tears on my cheeks, it’s more acceptable to say “a song hit me really hard” than it is to admit “someone honked at me at the end of a long, boring day and it made me cry.”

So maybe art gives us all a safe haven. An excuse to delve beyond the surface, or a chance to hide beneath a blanket of distractions. Maybe for some, it’s enough to pick and choose the happy.

For me, I need it all.