The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood Thursday, Sep 13 2012 

It is the near future, and the United States no longer exists. The country is now the Republic of Gilead, and the democratically elected government has been overthrown and replaced with a totalitarian theocracy. First Amendment freedoms no longer exist, and anyone considered “undesirable” is banished to the outskirts of civilization, where they are certain to die within a few years—if the leadership of Gilead doesn’t execute them first.

One of Gilead’s most prominent characteristics is its subjugation of women, and that is the focus of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, the story’s narrator, was once a woman with a husband, a daughter, and a job in a library. Now, she is separated from everyone she cares about and is no longer allowed to use her real name, have her own money, or even read. In the strict, highly stratified society of Gilead, Offred is a Handmaid, one of a class of women whose sole purpose is to have babies for the Commanders of the Faithful and their wives. Once every month, Offred is subjected to “The Ceremony” that she must hope will result in a pregnancy; every month that she does not get pregnant brings her another month closer to life being over, literally and figuratively. In between these ceremonies, Offred copes with a world where women cannot pursue knowledge, where sex is no longer about pleasure or love, and where spies and secret police may overhear anything a person says. Like the other Handmaids, Offred is no longer an individual, but a piece of property deemed interchangeable with any other woman of her rank.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a fun read (which you probably already concluded from that plot introduction), but it is riveting and terrifyingly relevant. Atwood’s prose is beautiful and descriptive, but never flowery. There is a sparse, dispassionate quality to it that makes Offred’s world seem all the more frightening and full of despair. Atwood writes in the voice of a miserable woman unable to express her misery openly or do anything to change it.

Even though it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale feels very timely now. It serves as a grim reminder that the progress made for women’s rights over the last century cannot and must not be taken for granted; the same is true for the freedoms of speech and religion guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. The dystopia in this novel is not an outrageous speculation that could never happen; it is what reality might look like if some of the more extreme views in our society were able to take hold and become the law of the land. For women especially, it is an important cautionary tale. In her earlier life in the United States, Offred was often indifferent to or even uncomfortable with the feminist activism of her mother, and she took her freedoms as a given, a guarantee that would always be there. Now, in Gilead, her body and mind are no longer her own to control, and she remains complacent because she fears retaliation, both against herself and against her lost family. She misses that former life, even the most mundane and unpleasant things about it; she had never taken the time to appreciate them before. At the same time, however, it is suggested that some of the more extreme feminist attitudes of the pre-Gilead era may have helped the religious right gain a foothold and to manipulate women into thinking that theocratic rule would protect them and improve their lives. Nevertheless, Atwood’s main criticism is of the right-wing extremists who took away women’s rights, and her warning is that the freedoms women have gained must continue to be appreciated and fought for every single day.

Brilliant and engrossing as it is, this is definitely a depressing novel. What makes it so disheartening is that it is not a story of democracy triumphing over totalitarianism or feminism overcoming patriarchy. Instead, it is a story that demonstrates how people become complacent under an oppressive regime and questions whether resistance would be at all successful. Danger and uncertainty are constants, especially for Handmaids like Offred, making her reluctant to join the small group of risk-takers who hope to take Gilead down.

The sharp social critique and beautifully haunting prose of The Handmaid’s Tale make it a modern classic and one of the most important novels of our time. Its harsh message and unhappy tone make it difficult to stomach sometimes, but I consider it essential reading for young women like myself—and maybe even for everyone else. It is a novel of a world we do not want but could possibly see, and a reminder that we must embrace our freedoms and fight back when anyone tries to take them away.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie Sunday, Aug 12 2012 

Saleem Sinai is born at a very exciting time—the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, to be exact, the very moment that India becomes an independent nation after decades of British rule. As he grows up, Saleem finds out that being born at such an important and historic moment has its consequences. From birth to adulthood, his hopes, dreams, personal tragedies, and even physical health are linked to and reflected in national events, to the point that Saleem even feels personally responsible for much of India’s postcolonial history. As if that were not enough, he also learns that he has telepathic powers that connect him with the other “midnight’s children,” all born within that first hour of Indian independence and possessing magical gifts of their own. Among those children is an enemy who will haunt Saleem for years to come.

Midnight’s Children was one of the more challenging ones I’ve read in a while; I was struck while reading it by just how little I knew about India. That limited knowledge, I am guessing, is why it took me some time to understand many of the symbols and themes present in the book. However, the challenge was well worth it. This is a fascinating and imaginative work, and not quite like anything else I have ever read.

The magical realism that Salman Rushdie is known for is perfect for a novel about 20th century India. As Saleem Sinai tells not only his own story, but also the stories of his parents and grandparents, the reader is presented with a picture of a nation that faces an ever-present conflict between its own ancient traditions and the British forces of modernization. Rushdie also perfectly presents two very common views of India (at least among Westerners): India as a magical land filled with mysteries and mysticism, and India as a real country facing real social, political, and military problems. The India in Midnight’s Children isn’t one or the other; it’s fully, definitely both.

What I consider to be best reflected in the magical realist elements and the saga of Saleem and his family is the fact that India is incredibly diverse and complex. For outsiders who don’t know much about it, it can be easy to forget that India is anything but a monolithic society. The country is one of the most populous in the world, and its citizens speak many different languages and practice numerous religions. That diversity and the challenges it presents shine through brilliantly in Midnight’s Children, and it is not very hard to see why Saleem often feels so overwhelmed by the moment of his birth and his inescapable connection to his homeland’s history.

While the history of postcolonial India is a huge part of the novel, it was hardly the only thing that stood out to me. I always enjoy novels that are fictional or fictionalized characters’ autobiographies, and what makes this one especially distinctive is that Saleem willingly acknowledges that he is not a reliable narrator. He is aware that he doesn’t always remember historical events and dates accurately, and he even admits that not every aspect of his story is completely true. As a result, Midnight’s Children becomes an interesting reflection on memory and whether how we remember things is more real to us than what actually happened. As with any fictional memoir I read, of course, I also find myself questioning how much we can believe the stories real people tell about their lives—not so much, in this case, because I think they’re being intentionally dishonest, but because they may be telling what they want to or can remember rather than what really happened.

Along with its strong thematic content, Midnight’s Children is an incredibly vibrant, gorgeously written novel filled with compelling characters and a few twists in the story that I did not expect. It is not one of the easier novels I’ve read in my life, but any effort I had to put into reading it was more than worth it, and I think it would be for anyone who chooses to read it.

Midnight’s Children covers so many decades and is so loaded with history, personalities, and details both realistic and magical that it almost feels impossible that a film adaptation is being released this year. I hope I get a chance to see this film and find out if it’s anywhere as captivating as its source material.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Monday, Jul 30 2012 

 

In what may seem like an odd paradox to some, I am not a particularly big fan of Jane Austen but consider Pride and Prejudice one of my favorite books. While it has one or two of the same flaws I’ve found in the other two Austen novels I’ve read (Emma and Sense and Sensibility being the books, and an overly quick ending after a rather slow-paced story being the big flaw), I think Pride and Prejudice is where Austen’s strengths are best displayed, making it her most intelligent and entertaining work.

Even in the novels I didn’t enjoy as much, I have always been impressed with Jane Austen’s characters, and the leads in Pride and Prejudice are probably her best. Elizabeth Bennet is my favorite literary character and easily one of the most important women in fiction. Though not exactly radical or rebellious by today’s standards, Elizabeth refuses to conform to all the expectations of a young woman in the Regency period. She is determined to marry for love (a relatively rare and new concept at that time) rather than settle for a marriage of financial convenience, and she is unafraid to show her intelligence and independent way of thinking, even in front of those who disapprove.  Charming and witty, she stands out among all the other women around her, including much wealthier ones. Unlike many of the other characters in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is willing to acknowledge her own flaws—namely, judging people too quickly and too harshly—and makes an effort to overcome them.

Then, of course, there is the handsome and wealthy Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, who has become one of literature’s most beloved romantic heroes. That status is hard to understand when the reader first encounters Mr. Darcy; he appears aloof, judgmental, and snobbish. Even when he first falls in love with and proposes to Elizabeth, he obsesses over the difference in social status between them, which only worsens the tension between them. However, like Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy is willing to admit that he is wrong and let his pride get in the way of better judgment, and he makes amends. Eventually, Elizabeth visits Pemberley, Darcy’s beautiful country estate, and gets to see who Mr. Darcy really is: an honest, generous man who cares deeply for his family and friends. As if that were not enough, he also defies his wealthy aunt in continuing to pursue Elizabeth, demonstrating that he no longer considers class difference such a barrier to true love. By the end of the novel, it is clear why Mr. Darcy has become a sex symbol for bookworms like myself (though Colin Firth’s iconic portrayal of Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries probably also has something to do with that).

Like her popular heroine, Jane Austen wasn’t especially radical or rebellious—by 21st century standards anyway—in writing Pride and Prejudice. However, through her distinctive characters and endlessly clever dialogue, she gently criticized the conventions of her day regarding wealth, class, love, and marriage. Even if Pride and Prejudice did not shatter the ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries when it was first published, it does reflect the changes in practice and attitude beginning around that time. Jane Austen must have been supportive of such changes; the novel clearly suggests that difference in social status should not be a barrier to love, and that marriage should be more about love than convenience or money. Although humorous in its own way, Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying her daughters off to wealthier men highlights the unfairness of the era’s inheritance laws and the precarious financial position of women. Less funny, of course, is the marriage of Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte to the Bennets’ irritating cousin Mr. Collins. Charlotte does not appear particularly enamored with her new husband, but has little other choice if she is to have a secure future.

The presentation of such ideas in Pride and Prejudice suggests a very early form of feminism on Jane Austen’s part. While she still presents marriage as an ideal to which women should aspire, her most famous novel expresses a belief that a woman should marry a man she loves, not a man her family or society demands that she marry. While Mr. Darcy is certainly a wealthy man who will provide Elizabeth with security and a wonderful lifestyle, Elizabeth marries him for love. She follows her heart, and in the process she too defies Darcy’s pretentious aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and frees herself from the annoying, ill-fated machinations of her mother.

Although Pride and Prejudice has something of a fairy tale ending, with the marriages of Darcy and Elizabeth and Jane and Mr. Bingley, the journey to that happy conclusion has more depth than the average fairy tale. Darcy and Elizabeth each make mistakes and are very harsh toward one another earlier in the novel, and it takes a great deal of learning about themselves and each other to improve their relationship, and to finally come around to forgiveness, friendship, and love. Jane and Bingley’s story doesn’t have the same level of depth or coverage in the novel, but the two still deal with separation, disappointment, and misunderstanding. They manage to move beyond all that to realize they still love each other and want to marry. Couples who must overcome obstacles in order to find lasting love and happiness have become commonplace—even cliché—in the romance genre, including in romantic comedies, but I cannot think of any other book or movie that has ever done such a story so well.

There is much more that could be discussed about how love, class, family, and environment in Pride and Prejudice and the impact they all have on the characters’ lives. While I do love the novel for its sharp look at the conventions of its time and the literary discussions and questions it inspires, what makes it one of my favorite books is the wonderfully written love story between two wonderfully written characters. That love story is exactly what has given the book such wide and lasting popularity (it was first published almost two hundred years ago!) and has made its numerous film adaptations so successful. Elizabeth Bennet is still one of the greatest heroines of all time; her wit, intelligence, and insight set her apart from many other fictional women, even contemporary ones.  There is something refreshing, even now, about such a smart woman getting a happy ending and a central role in a romance, rather than just being the clever but secondary character in such a story. And while Edward Cullen and Christian Grey may be getting more attention among readers right now, it is doubtful that either will have the lasting power of Mr. Darcy, who impresses readers not just with good looks, but with a willingness to change and an unshakable love for his family, his friends, and the woman he wants to marry. What could be more romantic than two such great people living happily ever after?

 

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman Tuesday, Dec 27 2011 

When studying Greek and Roman mythology in school, I always wondered if these gods ever actually existed, and if they did, what happened to them when Christianity became the dominant religion in Greece and Rome. While Neil Gaiman’s American Gods focuses more on deities from other parts of the world, it explores the questions I had in school about what becomes of gods and mythological beings that people no longer worship, and whether they can even be considered gods at all.

The novel begins with a man named Shadow preparing to leave prison after three years, only to find out that his beloved wife has just been killed in a car accident. His journey home is disrupted by a violent storm and meeting a mysterious and seemingly omniscient con man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. Shadow is soon working as Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, traveling with him as they meet with Wednesday’s equally mysterious and other worldly acquaintances.

Shadow eventually learns that these mysterious beings are all incarnations of ancient gods from around the world. Mr. Wednesday (whose true identity will become clear quickly even if you, like me, have minimal knowledge of Norse mythology) is attempting to rally them for one last battle to take back power from the modern gods—media, technology, and the like—that have pushed the ancient ones aside over the centuries. Throughout the novel, Shadow continues to encounter the gods of Native Americans, ancient Egyptians, and others all over America, as he hides from the vicious incarnations of the modern gods and learns some shocking truths about himself and those closest to him. All the while, a storm unlike any other—the battle between old gods and new—is quickly approaching.

The novel moved slower than I thought it would, and the plot often felt a bit convoluted, so it required more patience than the other Gaiman books I have read. However, it was more than worth it. Gaiman’s always amazing use of language and imagery is heightened in American Gods by the unusual characters and the themes of religious belief, loyalty, and the making of modern America. The ways in which he has the ancient gods and mythical characters live and interact in the modern world are fascinating and clever. I can only begin to imagine how much research must have been required to get it all right.

Some readers have complained that Gaiman excluded the well-known ancient Greek gods I mentioned earlier. However, the exclusion of these Greek deities and their Roman counterparts makes perfect sense to me. Throughout the novel, Gaiman makes the point that these gods all exist because people believe in them, and there is also a strong implication that immigration to America changed many worshippers’ beliefs and priorities. Therefore, it is appropriate to include gods who still had power when their worshippers began to arrive in America. By the time Greeks began coming to America in large numbers, they had long ago converted to Christianity. Following that, some have also commented on the exclusion of Jesus and the Judeo-Christian God from the novel. However, the Egyptian gods who run a funeral home in Cairo, Illinois, do allude to the popularity of Jesus in Middle America, and the Germanic goddess Eostre is now known to most only as the inspiration for the name of the Christian festival of Easter. De-emphasizing Judeo-Christianity in the novel makes sense to me as well, because I believe Gaiman wanted to show that today’s most prominent “gods” are not necessarily ones that people would worship in the more conventional religious sense, and that certain “gods” like money and fame can easily gain more of a hold over people than the gods praised in churches or temples.

The modern gods against whom Mr. Wednesday so desperately wants to fight are portrayed as an obnoxious, ever-haunting presence employing a villainous, Secret Service-like organization. They are not quite as dominant in the novel as I expected; the focus of the novel is much more on Shadow and his relationships with the ancient gods he encounters, especially Mr. Wednesday. However, the modern gods are a constant threat that neither Shadow nor the reader is ever allowed to forget, especially when they start talking to Shadow through reruns of I Love Lucy and Cheers, resulting in two very creepy but very funny scenes.

Without telling too much more of the plot of American Gods, I have to say that I came away from this book with different reflections than I thought I would. I figured the novel would be mostly about how the world has changed, how people have exchanged loyal worship of their culture’s gods for a struggle to achieve fame in the media, wealth, or some other, more material accomplishment. However, as I finished the novel, I found myself thinking more about how the world hasn’t changed in the centuries since the gods discussed in the novel were at the height of their power. We criticize others today for their aggression in pursuing the “gods” of fame and fortune, but the more I read of American Gods, the more I realized that people were just as aggressive in pursuing the favor of whatever gods they worshipped, and this often involved violence and making huge, devastating sacrifices in order to please those gods. The ancient gods in this novel are just as demanding—and often demeaning—as the modern gods they aim to defeat, and Shadow ends up, at least for a while, leading his life according to their will, much as someone desperate for money and fame would put other things in their life aside in order to pursue those goals.

There are countless twists and surprises in American Gods that I won’t go into here; as with any Gaiman novel, it’s much more fun to discover the intricacies of his work yourself than to read about them elsewhere. I am already planning to read American Gods again someday, as the novel was too much to take in completely in just one reading. It wasn’t the easiest of Gaiman’s books to get through, but it was definitely the most powerful and interesting. This is a book that is both thrilling and thought provoking, and one that can easily spark some good discussions. I think that every time someone reads it, they will get something different out of it, which I consider one of the marks of a truly great book.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Monday, Nov 28 2011 

I had been hearing about Stieg Larsson’s now world-famous Millennium trilogy for a couple of years, but I didn’t read the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, until I saw the trailer for the English-language film adaptation coming out in December. I was slightly nervous to start the novel after hearing how great this series was: could it live to the hype?

The answer, at least for this first book, was yes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo begins with Swedish journalist Mikael Blomqvist being convicted of libel against billionaire Hans-Erik Wennerström. Disgraced and left near financial ruin after paying damages and court costs, Blomqvist soon finds himself living on a remote island and completing a freelance assignment for Henrik Vanger, the elderly former CEO of his family’s Vanger Corporation. For nearly forty years, Henrik Vanger has been haunted by the disappearance of his favorite niece, Harriet. He is convinced that someone in the competitive, corrupt Vanger family murdered Harriet and has been trying to drive him insane ever since. The mystery seems impossible to solve, especially after so many years, but Henrik charges Blomkvist with one final effort to find out who killed Harriet.

Because of the considerable research the assignment requires, Blomkvist takes on Lisbeth Salander, a surveillance agent from Milton Security, to help him solve Harriet’s murder. Salander is a brilliant investigator, able to find out anything about anyone, albeit through less than scrupulous means. She is pierced, tattooed, antisocial, and seemingly mentally unstable. But despite her unconventional appearance and unsettling presence, she proves to be exactly the person Blomkvist needs by his side as his investigation into Harriet Vanger’s fate uncovers more corruption and more brutal violence than he ever imagined.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. It is written with such detail and such intelligence that I felt not only interested in the mystery of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, but also involved in its investigation. The plot has several very clever twists; it’s been a long time since any book succeeded in surprising me as much as this one did. The book does become gruesomely violent at points, but the violence never feels gratuitous. Larsson clearly wanted to make a point in this novel about the horrors of sexual violence and make his audience take the issue seriously. As a result, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turns out to be both a good thriller and a brutally honest social commentary. Somehow, one never really interferes with the other; Larsson does an excellent job of weaving the two together into a strong, cohesive story.

For me, though, what truly sets this thriller apart from most others is the character of Lisbeth Salander. As much as I enjoy mysteries and thrillers, I find it irritating that so many authors in these genres feel the need to make their female characters impossibly beautiful, sophisticated, and perfect. Salander, on the other hand, is riddled with imperfections and not someone most people would immediately find attractive. One could possibly say that Salander’s eccentricities and extreme antisocial behavior make her no more realistic than more “conventional” heroines, but I found her a strangely refreshing character. I appreciated seeing a woman in this genre that was far from perfect, but still had the toughness and the intelligence to get the job done, even without movie star looks and impeccable social skills.

My only criticism of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the subplot involving Blomkvist’s libel conviction and the fallout for his magazine, Millennium. While there were interesting aspects to the storyline and it needed to be resolved, I was disappointed to see how much it dominated the end of the book. It simply wasn’t as gripping as the main plot, and I felt a little too confident that I knew how it would end. Still, I understand that it was necessary to give some sort of conclusion to that subplot, and it detracted very little from my enjoyment of the book.

I am always willing to be the naysayer if I don’t like something that’s popular, but I’m very glad I didn’t have to take that role here. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo really was the smart, unorthodox, surprising thriller I hoped it would be. I looked forward to seeing the film adaptation premiering in December and reading the other two books in the trilogy.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman Saturday, Nov 5 2011 

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scotsman living a rather ordinary life in London. One evening, on the way to an “important” dinner with his fiancée Jessica and her boss, Richard stops to help a severely injured young woman on the sidewalk. Jessica’s outrage at this leads to their breakup, but soon, Richard is noticing much bigger changes in his life. His office is empty, his apartment is being rented to someone else, and nobody from his life recognizes or even sees him.

The biggest change of all comes when Richard, desperate to get his life back, finds himself in London Below, the world from which the injured young woman, simply named Door, had come. Here he encounters beings and things he never imagined existed, some of them beautiful, some of them hideous—and many of them dangerous either way. As Richard accompanies Door, the arrogant Marquis de Carabas, and the beautiful bodyguard Hunter on the quest to avenge Door’s dead family, the magical and complex nature of London Below presents countless challenges, not the least of which are the assassins Croup and Vandemar, whose mysterious employer insists that they capture Door (for undisclosed reasons, of course). Along the way, Richard learns that many beings and places in London Below are not at all what they seem at first glance, and that perhaps he is a stronger person than he thought when his life in London Above began to crumble.

I do not want to give away too much about the world of Neverwhere, because it’s much more fun to discover them on your own.  I will say, though, that the rich details of London Below are a joy to read. Even the more grotesque elements of it are delightful in a strange, morbid sort of way. The novel, in my mind, is a dark, modern twist on classic stories like The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it also reminded me more than a little bit of the beloved science fiction series Doctor Who. The science fiction, fantasy, and horror elements all blend together perfectly.

Having now read both Stardust and Neverwhere, I can very surely say that Neil Gaiman has quite a gift for creating worlds in which the reader enjoys getting lost. Like Faerie in Stardust, reading about London Below often made me forget where I was. Gaiman makes this fictional place feel so vivid and so real that it will almost be a surprise to me when I finally make it to London someday and do not somehow end up in London Below.

Gaiman’s writing is so intelligent and so engaging that, when reading his books, I start to wonder if I’m more of a fan of the fantasy genre than I thought. I think it helps that his characters are not all mythical creatures, and even many of the characters one would never encounter in reality are somehow human enough that I can almost believe they exist. I think, having read Neverwhere, that I could also get really into the urban fantasy subgenre. So, if you have any recommendations for urban fantasy novels (or even any other really good fantasy novels), go for it!

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr Thursday, Oct 27 2011 

In this sequel to The Alienist, controversial psychiatrist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his eclectic team of investigators find themselves once again at the center of a complicated, disturbing case. The story begins when a Spanish diplomat’s baby daughter is kidnapped. The child’s mother approaches former police department secretary Sara Howard, now a private investigator, for help after her husband refuses to do anything to get their child back. Although tensions between the U.S. and Spain are blamed at first, the team soon learns that the kidnapper is Libby Hatch, a nurse with a troubling track record of babies dying under her care. As Dr. Kreizler and the others delve further into Libby’s life, both past and present, they find out they are up against a manipulative woman who has caused more destruction than they could have imagined.

While I’d say that The Angel of Darkness is just as good as The Alienist, this book has a very different feel to it, despite having many of the same characters. While The Alienist was more of a mystery, with the investigators trying both to identify and to stop the killer, The Angel of Darkness is more of a thriller. The reader finds out in the first chapter who the main villain is and what has become of her, and the rest of the novel reveals what is so awful about Libby Hatch, and why the team’s experience with her still haunts them. The other big difference is the novel’s narrator. The Alienist is told from the perspective of educated, well-to-do journalist John Moore, but The Angel of Darkness is narrated by Stevie Taggert, a former petty thief who began working for Dr. Kreizler after Kreizler saved him from a brutal life in prison. Stevie tells the story with a less refined tone, and he presents what is practically an insider’s perspective on the New York criminal underworld, having spent his childhood as a part of it. As a result, the dangers of dealing with the gangs and violence of that world felt much closer and much more real in The Angel of Darkness. While Carr certainly did not hold back from describing them in The Alienist, there was always a certain distance from all of it when an outsider was telling the story.

I think the most notable thing about The Angel of Darkness, though, is Libby Hatch herself, who is a surprisingly complicated villain for a thriller.  As vicious and deceitful as Libby can be, there is something desperate and tragic about her as well. There are so many sides to her personality—some real, some perhaps entirely fabricated—that she is not only a fascinating psychological study for Dr. Kreizler, but a challenge for the investigators that their target in The Alienist never presented to the same degree. I found myself wondering about Libby Hatch whether she could have turned out differently in a society that had different expectations of women, and I even came close to pitying her a few times, despite her shocking crimes—but Carr keeps Libby sneaky and evil enough to stop the reader from feeling much sympathy for her.

Like The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness presents appealing characters (though I thought Sara Howard was still a little too close to being a mere caricature of a late 19th century feminist), and an exciting, suspenseful story. Both books offer an interesting peek into a very different era of New York City history, which has been, for me, one of the most enjoyable parts of reading them. Caleb Carr has not written a book about Laszlo Kreizler and his associates since The Angel of Darkness in 1997, but I hope perhaps he will write at least one more someday. I would certainly welcome such a book, and I’m sure many other mystery and thriller fans would as well.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin Friday, Sep 2 2011 

It took me about two months to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. This was partly because of my schedule and partly because I was reading other books at the same time. Mostly, though, it was because Team of Rivals is a very long, intense read—over 700 pages (before the notes and bibliography!) containing an enormous amount of information on a crucial period of American history.

In addition to being a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the book also contains surprisingly extensive biographies of Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination—William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates—all of whom Lincoln would select to be part of his Cabinet when he became president of a nation on the brink of war. Goodwin tells the story of the Civil War and the conflicts leading up to it largely through the experiences of the men who worked closely with Lincoln during his presidency. As such, the book provides rare insights into the lives and minds of political and military figures usually not discussed in great detail in history classes.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is still very much the central figure in Team of Rivals, and Goodwin’s portrayal of him is far from that of an inexperienced country lawyer who became president and won the Civil War on benevolence and idealism. While Lincoln was by nearly all accounts a very honest and generous man, he also proved a much more astute politician than any of his skeptical opponents expected. He looked past rivalries and divergent views in order to build the best government possible to manage and win the Civil War. He brilliantly managed not only the challenges of the war, but also the people running that war, some of whom had even fiercer contentions with each other than they had with the president. Lincoln’s ability to win the respect and cooperation of those who had once scorned him was indeed very impressive, as was his success at keeping the various jealousies, disputes, and ambitions of government and military officials from derailing the Union on its path to restoration and peace. Goodwin’s focus on these aspects of Abraham Lincoln provides a fresh perspective on this beloved but often misunderstood historical figure, allowing a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the leaders involved in it.

Considering that it is a non-fiction book over 700 pages long, Team of Rivals reads like a good novel. Historical figures spring to life from the pages, and I found myself forming opinions on them the way I would with characters in fiction. There were people I found new admiration for (like William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State) and others that I found absolutely infuriating (like Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury). In addition to political and military affairs, Team of Rivals offers great insights into the often-difficult family lives of these important men, which adds to the novel-like atmosphere. The tragic death of Lincoln’s son Willie and his wife Mary’s subsequent depression, Chase’s oddly co-dependent relationship with his daughter Kate, and the maneuverings of the prominent Blair family all play major roles in the book and in shaping the reader’s understanding of how war and politics strained every aspect of life in the 1860s. Also quite interesting is the portrait of the social life in Washington, D.C., as well as the incredible differences between life in 19th century Washington and the capital city today. Perhaps the best example is the throngs of people who would come to see Lincoln at the White House, usually seeking some sort of government office. It makes one understand why it is so difficult to obtain a meeting with the President now!

What I have said here about Team of Rivals is really just a brief summary of one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever read. There is so much to learn from this book about Abraham Lincoln, the men he worked with, and the most pressing issues in 19th century America. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War or U.S. history in general. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Lincoln, expected in theaters in late 2012, is largely based on Team of Rivals, and it will be very interesting to see how the incredible story told in this book translates to the big screen. You can be sure I will have something to say about it!

The Alienist by Caleb Carr Friday, Aug 5 2011 

Are you a history geek? Do you know and love New York City? Do you always enjoy a good mystery?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then The Alienist is a novel you must read.

Set in 1896 New York, during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner, The Alienist follows the search for a serial killer in the city’s corrupt, dangerous underworld. Joining Roosevelt in the investigation are crime reporter John Moore, ahead-of-their-time detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, secretary and first female NYPD employee Sara Howard, former mental patients Stevie Taggert and Cyrus, and title character Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and controversial psychiatrist. As author Caleb Carr explains, psychiatrists were known as alienists before the 20th century because of the belief that the mentally ill were “alienated not only from society but from their own true natures.”

Caleb Carr does an excellent job creating a portrait of late 19th century New York City. It is fascinating to read of a New York without many of the iconic buildings and institutions that are such a huge part of our image of the city today. Carr also doesn’t shy away from the violence and depravity that characterized life for so many New Yorkers in that era; in the world he recreates, it isn’t hard to believe that the serial killer at the center of this novel could elude capture for so long. The Alienist is especially enjoyable for anyone with strong knowledge of New York and its history; you will find yourself engrossed in where the characters end up on their search, and you might even figure out a thing or two before it is revealed.

Though this particular story is fictional, it’s also interesting to read about a criminal investigation in a time when scientific evidence and criminal psychology were considered both innovative and outrageous. It offers some insights into how the investigative procedures we see today on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI came into being. Kreizler’s insights into the criminal mind are especially readable and much deeper than one would usually expect in a book that is essentially a thriller.

While this is primarily a plot-driven novel without great character depth, Laszlo Kreizler is a very compelling figure, and the novel is at its best when he’s involved. Though he could have easily been written as the typical brooding, mysterious, haunted-by-the-past male character, Carr successfully balances these qualities with intelligence and kind-heartedness. Kreizler’s scientific fascination with the case, and with the human mind in general, is equaled by a genuine concern for potential victims and the many other people he has helped in his work. He is the kind of character that leads the reader to musing who would play him in a film adaptation (personally, I think a younger Alan Rickman type would be perfect).

I only have two significant criticisms of The Alienist. One of them is the character of Sara Howard. While I admired her determination to be an independent woman and to hold her own in a field usually reserved to men at the time, I thought sometimes she was trying too hard to be defiant and to be “one of the boys,” which made her seem awkward and insecure rather than strong. Since the case involves child prostitutes and homosexuality, I found the characters’ seemingly liberal views on the latter unrealistic for the time period. While their compassion for the slain boys from the “disorderly houses” certainly makes sense, most of these characters, were this a real case, probably still would have expressed some repulsion at the prevalence of homosexuality in Manhattan’s seedier institutions.

While it’s not exactly a criticism, and it isn’t something that bothered me, it’s also worth noting that this novel can get very violent and gruesome, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who can’t handle that kind of thing.

These quibbles aside, The Alienist is a first-rate thriller that will especially intrigue anyone interested in New York City history or criminal psychology. I look forward to reading its follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, and will be sure to review that here as well.

Reflections on Harry Potter Tuesday, Jul 19 2011 

Like much of the world, this past weekend I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The movie was absolutely fantastic—emotional, exciting, and visually stunning. It was exactly the kind of movie I had hoped would bring this great series to an end. The film also got me thinking about what Harry Potter has meant to me since I read the first book in 2000, and I’d like to talk a bit about that now.

Harry Potter didn’t make me love reading; I loved to read long before I ever heard of these books. It didn’t get me interested in other fantasy fiction. I read each of the seven books only once and don’t remember many of the details as well as some other fans do. I never attended a book release or a midnight showing of a new movie, let alone dress up as one of the characters for such an event. Harry Potter didn’t change my life and was never really a central part of it. Nevertheless, the series is still special to me for all the entertainment it provided for the past eleven years.

The universe J.K. Rowling created, full of rich details, suspense, and humor, is one that I always enjoyed visiting. I loved how intricate the magic was and how much Hogwarts students had to learn. The wizarding world proved to be as complicated and full of drama and politics as the real world, and just as gripping, if not more so. I can still remember being so absorbed in the final chapters of several of the books that I couldn’t even move from my chair until I finished reading. Harry’s showdown with Voldemort in the Chamber of Secrets, the Dark Lord’s return to power at the end of the Triwizard Tournament, and, especially the Battle of Hogwarts were all especially captivating and suspenseful for me. On the lighter side of this universe, I always loved that the portraits talked and moved and even left their frames to visit other portraits, that Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans really did come in every flavor (including a few you wouldn’t want to think about…), and that the Weasley twins always knew the perfect prank or joke for every situation. The Harry Potter books could certainly be very dark, especially later in the series, but it’s things like these that I remember most fondly about the books, and they still make me smile.

While I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that I “grew up” with the Harry Potter characters, I always liked that J.K. Rowling made them relatable and gave them many of the same problems that adolescents face in the real world, from unrequited crushes to fights with friends to the obsessive drive to be a brilliant student.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione could sometimes be irritating, and they didn’t always get along perfectly, but I never stopped rooting for them or their friendship. I found Luna Lovegood hilarious and appreciated that Rowling made her deeper than her eccentric behavior and beliefs. But I think the Hogwarts student I came to love most was Neville Longbottom, who started off as awkward and fearful as could be, but grew up to be a brave and loyal friend who played a critical role in protecting his classmates and bringing down Voldemort once and for all. Then there are the teachers and staff at Hogwarts, especially the now iconic Professor Snape, who is easily one of the most complex characters ever included in a series written for children. The characters, though not all as well-developed as I would have liked, never seemed remote to me; they reminded me a lot of myself and people I knew, except that, well, they could perform a lot more magic than anyone I ever met.

What I appreciate most about Harry Potter as I look back, though, isn’t simply reading the books and watching the movies. It’s the memories my friends and I have from being fans of the series. Harry Potter led to so many jokes and discussions among my friends that I couldn’t possibly name them all here. We spent a lunchtime trying to match our high school teachers with the Hogwarts professors they were most like. We debated our favorite characters and which of the books and movies were the best—or worst. At one birthday party we sampled some of the candy based on the series, though I don’t remember what conclusion we came to about it now. We imagined what it would be like to go to Hogwarts and joked about transferring there when frustrated or bored with our classes in the real world. Sometimes we even mused over which male characters were the cutest, though as I recall, I never really thought of any of them that way. There was always a lot of spirited conversation and laughter when the subject of Harry Potter came up, and our shared enjoyment of the series was a wonderful addition to the camaraderie we already had. I’m still hoping to get to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter down in Orlando with a few friends someday; I can’t even begin to imagine how much fun that could be.

There’s been a lot of analysis of Harry Potter over the years, just as there usually is with any book series or any successful entertainment franchise. People have accused the books of promoting witchcraft, debated their literary merits, drawn parallels between the Death Eaters and Nazi Germany, suggested other symbolism, and talked about the moral lessons that one could glean from them. The controversies and commentary on the book are interesting and worthy of discussion. But ultimately, I think what matters most about these books is that they were entertaining. While I already loved to read by the time I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in fifth grade, I know that Rowling’s powerful imagination and her ability to mix humor and suspense are what got many children interested in reading. The books were not only fun, but also a major turning point in their lives; reading was no longer a chore to them, but something they enjoyed and of which they wanted more. For me, the series was simply a joy to read and, for the most part, to watch. It was a fun experience to share with friends and gave me a lot of great memories. I hope Harry Potter will continue to entertain both children and adults for generations to come, and that they will get as much out of it as I did—and maybe even more.

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