But wait, you say. I’m Starved for Youis a Kindle Single and is too short to qualify as a novel! And I reply, That’s okay! Because it’s a novella, and it’s awesome! Last year I read and blogged about The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which is only 26,000 words, or so. Also, it’s my blog, and if I say it qualifies, it qualifies. So there. That said, it really is just a longish short story.
Anyway, I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, which you’ll know already if you’ve read my reviews of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood from last year or my dystopia rundown from a couple of weeks ago. I especially enjoy her writing style, which is easy to read but not condescending at all. And we all know how much I like dystopian fiction.
I can’t give out too much information on I’m Starved for You without a Super Duper Spoiler, which, in this case, I don’t want to do, especially since this story is so new. It’s a dystopian novella about a near-future city in which the residents (voluntarily) alternate months between prison and home. They go to prison for a month and have a job, etc, there, and then they return home to their houses and families for a month. While one couple is in prison, Alternates stay in their homes until the Alternates go to prison, and so on, and so one. Families and their Alternates are allowed no contact. Except the protagonist, Stan, finds a note under the refrigerator and starts to investigate. Which is where I stop.
I think I discovered this novella from Margaret Atwood herself: she’s very active on Twitter, which is soooo cool. (Incidentally, one of my other favorite writers, Salman Rushdie, is, too.) It’s a Kindle Single, and it’s only $3. You can’t, of course, check it out from the library because publishing companies make it as hard as possible for libraries to offer ebooks. But that’s another story.
I don’t have that much to say about I’m Starved for You except that it’s very Atwood-y and that it’s fantastic. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can read it anywhere that there’s Kindle software, which includes PCs. Here’s a handy link!
Northanger Abbey wasn’t at all what I expected. And this time that’s not in a good way. I knew, going in, that it’s parody of the gothic novels that were popular at that time like The Monk, The Castle of Otranto, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed (that’s another example of me being surprised by what I read). Gothic novels hit their peak in the very late eighteenth century, and they generally involve creepy old castles with ghosts and such and lots and lots of evil. I almost stopped reading The Monk because it was giving me nightmares. Anyway, Northanger Abbey is nothing like that. I was bored to tears.
It’s about Catherine Morland, an eighteen-year-old, and her adventures in finding a man. Various things go wrong, and some of them go right, etc, etc. It’s basically a run-of-the-mill Jane Austen novel. (I should note, here, that I generally don’t like Jane Austen, but I did enjoy Pride and Prejudice, the only Austen novel I’ve read all the way through. I tried Sense and Sensibility but hated it and stopped. Maybe I would have had better luck with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, but I digress.) Here’s the Wikipedia rundown, which follows most of the book blurbs I’ve seen: “The most famous parody of the Gothic is Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (1818) in which the naive protagonist, after reading too much Gothic fiction, conceives herself a heroine of a Radcliffian romance and imagines murder and villainy on every side, though the truth turns out to be much more prosaic.”[1. Wikipedia entry on Gothic Fiction] That description is true, but only for about 20% of the novel: the remaining 80% is husband-finding and related girly issues. Seriously: There is no mention of the abbey until 63% into the book (I read it on my Kindle), and they’re only there for a little less than 20%. And there is nothing creepy, just a frightened kid who reads too much into everything around her and then makes stupid assumptions. She’s silly.
And that’s about it for the plot. There’s really nothing special. Your time will be much better spent if you read one of the actual gothic novels. I suggest starting with The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, simply because it’s the shortest one I know of, and these novels can be a bit of an acquired taste – and most of them are looooooong.
I really disliked Northanger Abbey. It was boring. And the book blurbs seem like false advertising: the vast majority is classic Jane Austen, not even the parody part. Yes, there are some funny parts, like when Catherine and her friend Isabella are reading The Mysteries of Udolpho and are unreasonably intrigued. And that part is only funny if you’ve read at least one gothic novel. I was expecting more of Northanger Abbey, or at least something creepy, but most of the novel is about a silly kids ridiculous emotionally-charged, false conclusions. Not an interesting read.
That said, if you’re a huge fan of Jane Austen, you’ll probably like this one as much as any of the others.
When I talk to others about dystopian novels (which happens surprisingly often), most of them have read 1984, and lots have read Brave New World. Most know about Yvegny Zamyatin‘s We, but I don’t think I’ve met anyone who has actually read it. Some have even tried to read it, but everyone seems to think it’s boring. At some point when I was in high school, I bought a paperback copy of We from my local Borders. Fresh off of 1984, I was excited to delve more deeply into my newly discovered favorite genre. But I didn’t get far into We. In fact, I think it put me to sleep within ten minutes. I have no idea why except that maybe I’d happened upon a bad translation.
Because We is good. I might even like it more than 1984, which is a very tall order.
It’s about a man named D-503 in a totalitarian society that you’d expect out of any dystopian novel. Society is regimented, everyone is constantly being watched. The key to happiness, they think, is the eradication of imagination, of the soul. Citizens live in apartment buildings made almost entirely out of glass. There is no privacy except for planned sex days, when they’re allowed to lower the blinds for half an hour and have sex with partners to whom they’re registered. Like Brave New World, any children must be carefully planned, and they’re immediately taken away from their parents to be indoctrinated by the state. D-503 is content here. He is the chief architect of the Integral, a flying saucer of sorts meant to spread this society’s government throughout the universe since it has already dominated the Earth. Everything is great until I-330 (a woman – men’s names begin with consonants, and women’s names begin with vowels) enters the picture, gets D-503 all riled up, and gets him in touch (he, he) with his imagination. This novel is written like a journal, so the reader gets to experience his discoveries alongside him, making his experiences feel authentic and immediate. As he awakens, he begins to figure things out, and Things Happen. That’s as far as my summary goes.
If you like 1984, We is a must-read. It’s a huge influence on lots of my favorite dystopian novels. And what’s funny is that even though We was written in 1929, it doesn’t feel dated for the most part. There’s a scene in which lots of people go into space for a short time on the Integral, and it’s especially interesting to read about what people in Russia in the 1920s thought space travel might be like, how the mechanics might work.
Seriously. Check this one out even if you’ve thought for years that it would be boring. Because it’s not and because it’s totally worth your time.
As you might know, I’m reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s dystopian novel, We. And I’m totally not going to finish it for a couple of weeks because I have Other Things going on. So I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on what is possibly my very favorite literary genre. (Read on if you’re wondering what a dystopian novel is. I’ll get to it eventually.)
What happened: In high school, I was assigned quite possibly the best known dystopian novel of all time. Ever. Yep, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It remains one of my favorite novels, though I haven’t read it in several years (*adding it to my to-read list now). Written in 1948, takes place in 1984, this novel is a terrifying vision of what the world can be if the government becomes too powerful. You’ve heard of Big Brother. Here’s where he came from.
Second, for me, was Brave New World. It’s about a society in which people are conditioned from birth to think and behave in a certain way. The theory is that if every thought is conditioned, poverty, hunger, and crime will be wiped out. One of their tactics is to limit reproduction and, when a child is born, take him away from his parents to be conditioned by the government. And so on. Good novel.
There was also The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of my very favorite authors. (She’s also active on Twitter!) The Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of hers that I read, and I was enthralled. Like Brave New World, this society is dealing with population problems, but on the other end of the spectrum: for some reason, most women have become infertile. Young women who can have children are forced to become handmaids – or, basically, concubines to rich men. Still one of my favorites. Lots of Atwood’s novels are dystopian. If you like The Handmaid’s Tale, check out Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, both of which I read and reviewed last year. Then read everything else she’s written.
Several years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which is about a society in which even thought is supposed to be collective, and “I,” “me,” and “myself” are Unspeakable Words. I dislike Ayn Rand, so I’m not saying anything else. But Anthem is a dystopian novel that I’ve read.
And don’t forget Fahrenheit 451! A very special book for librarians everywhere. (See? Isn’t this genre exciting?!?) It’s about a society in which books are banned. Owning a book is a crime, and the government conducts regular and very public book burnings. Here’s another one I need to read again. There’s also a good movie version from the 1970s.
Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels also includes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which I’ve read and enjoyed, but I don’t think it fits into this category. Dude wakes up turned into a cockroach. His life becomes unpleasant. Things Happen. Not dystopian.
This one’s a short story: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, in which everyone is supposed to be so equal that “normal” people are required to be handicapped in some way. People with above average intelligence have to wear headphones that make a high-pitched noise ever so often, interrupting any intelligent thought. TV anchormen have to have speech impediments, and so on. If dystopian lit sounds interesting to you, but you don’t want to make the novel commitment, “Harrison Bergeron” might be a good place to start.
And there are so many more! Here are some more that I’ve read and that I recommend. A few are juvenile novels, and I’ll mark them with a J. That shouldn’t keep you from reading them, though. They’re all great books no matter your age.
Do you see a pattern here? A dystopian novel is usually set in the future (sometimes in the very near future) and in a society that has gone horribly wrong. They usually involve totalitarian governments and/or a spent environment. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, in which society functions perfectly, and everything is pleasant and beautiful and such. If you want to read about those, try Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia. I generally find utopian novels a bit, well, boring, so I haven’t read any, I don’t think, except those two. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!
Bonus: Here’s the iconic Apple Macintosh ad from 1984. It’s worth a watch!
Eudora Welty has long been a staple of my Too Sentimental category. I don’t think I’ve read anything of hers since I was in high school, and I don’t even remember what it was. She reappeared on my radar after my fairly recent success with novelists like George Eliot and Willa Cather. I really read very little from female authors. It’s probably because a traditional English degree (or, at least, the one I got) glorifies dead white men. You know, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Lawrence, Joyce, etc, etc. And I’d especially avoided Welty because I remembered her as sickeningly sentimental.
The Optimist’s Daughter is about a woman named Laurel who is coping with the death of her father in a tiny Mississippi town. She has to deal with the memories of her mother, who died ten years ago, and of her husband, who died in a war. She also has to handle her father’s new wife, Fay, who has no emotional attachment to anything. Laurel has lived in Chicago for several years, and Fay has taken over her father’s house. She shows blatant disregard for everything in it and bitterness toward her husband’s previous wife.
This novel fits squarely into the family drama category, and it’s certainly worth your time to read. It’s a fairly quick read, and it held my attention all the way through. Welty’s characters are deep: you can’t help but sympathize with Laurel. I’m going to read more Welty in the near future. It’s a pity I’d avoided her for so long.
I’m not quite sure how I came across Islands in the Stream. I’d never heard of it. It’s one of Hemingway‘s later novels – after most of the famous ones – and it’s really, really good. I think I might have enjoyed reading this one more than any of the others I’ve read (For Whom the Bell Tolls,A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises). That’s not to say that it’s the best I’ve read: I think For Whom the Bell Tolls takes that prize. The Sun Also Rises is also amazing. Islands in the Stream was just a good read. It’s as Hemingway-esque as you can get, in both content and style.
Islands in the Stream is about Thomas Hudson, a well-known artist. The novel is split into three parts, all in the Florida keys. In the first, he’s at a vacation house, and he spends his days painting and hanging out with his friends. His three sons spend the summer with him. There’s a great scene that’s very similar to The Old Man and the Sea, in which one of the sons tries to reel in an epic fish over about fifty pages. When the summer is over, the boys go back to their mothers. Then, something terrible happens. It made me cry. The second part takes place in Cuba. Another terrible something has just happened. Thomas Hudson splits his time between another house and the local bar. Hemingway also describes Thomas Hudson’s cats (modeled, I assume, on the troop of six-toed cats he loved so much) in great detail. The third part happens on a boat in the keys: Thomas Hudson is doing military work, looking for a boat-full of Germans and trying to take prisoners. It’s more about the relationship he has with his crew than what actually happens.
This novel is as beautifully written as any of the other Hemingway novels I’ve read, and I think it would be a good introduction to Hemingway because it includes some of the themes he uses often. Hemingway has written so many novels I had never heard of, and though I’ve always liked him (okay, I’m not particularly fond of The Old Man and the Sea), I’m especially looking forward to reading the huge amount of his stuff that I hadn’t read.
Bonus: Here’s a photo of Hemingway and a kid I assume is his on a boat, just as I’d imagine a scene in Islands in the Stream.