**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three stars out of five; The Far Field is a tale that has the potential to be awe-inspiring, just like the landscape of the**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three stars out of five; The Far Field is a tale that has the potential to be awe-inspiring, just like the landscape of the region in which it is set, but ultimately fails to deliver on its promise, mainly due to how unlikeable the main character comes across.
In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to learn about the Kashmir region that lies in Northern India, directly adjacent to both Pakistan and China. The area, lying in the Himalayas, has been the scene of often intense fighting during this time. Myriad factors play into this animosity, ranging from historical grievances to nationalism to religious intolerance. But when you throw in the fact that all three of the countries I mentioned above are nuclear armed, these factors raise the region's issues to a level of critical international importance.
With this in mind, I have always been interested in learning more about the region from the perspective of those who live there. News reports can only get one so far in this respect, so it was with a great deal of excitement that I found The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. The book chronicles the travels of an Indian woman as she travels from her posh, urban existence and into the mountains of Kashmir as she searches for an old friend of her deceased mother. The book has all of the elements in place for a coming-of-age story or, at the very least, an amazing journey in an exotic land. The personal growth of the main character, Shalini, is seems guaranteed.
The first half of the book was amazing; Shalini is painted as a lost soul, grieving for her dead mother by miring herself in a haze of debauchery, drinking, and pointless, even self-destructive, relationships. She hits the nadir of her existence when she loses her job; at this point she impetuously decides to set out on a search for Bashir Ahmed, a clothes salesman from Kashmir who had come to build up a long-term relationship with Shalini and her mother. The writing to this point is excellent, and I practically felt like I was getting on the train with Shalini as she finally escaped Bangalore.
As she searches for Bashir Ahmed, Shalini spends time in the mountains with two different families and learns more about the troubles they have faced. She learns that the rosy picture painted by her government of the people and the situation in Kashmir is greatly at odds with her personal experiences; from the standpoint of the villagers, and in particular the Muslim villagers, the Indian Army has bred a great deal of resentment through their heavy handed actions. The stage was set for Shalini to finally have an experience that would help her understand the world.
And it's at this point that the book fell flat. Shalini never seems to grow as a person; instead, she comes across as a spoiled rich girl in a poor and unforgiving land. She claims to admire the strength of one of her most staunch supporters, while at the same time being nearly unable to restrain her desire for her host's husband. She constantly thinks of how her mother would have handled situations, but then never acts on those thoughts. She accuses village elders and Indian Army officials alike of acting improperly, but never seems to have a full enough understanding of the very complicated situation in which she finds herself to be able to make these types of judgments. When she makes decisions, she seems to have an almost Costanza-like ability to make exactly the wrong choice. Fortunately for her, this never seems to hurt her, but it's unfortunate for everyone around her who has to bear the consequences of her poor choices. And finally, there's an absolutely ludicrous scene near the end of the book where, as a reader, I have to wonder if Shalini is either the most naive person ever committed to paper, a sociopath, or just simply not very smart.
That's not to say that the book is not well written or that the story is not compelling; I dare say that a writer has to be fairly skilled to get me to feel so strongly about a character and her family, and in this case my emotions ran negative. This is why I gave the book three stars instead of a one- or two-star rating. By the time I was done I felt like I had just finished reading the Indian version of The Catcher in the Rye, another book wherein the protagonist is a spoiled rich kid who goes on a journey and learns nothing.
Near the end of the book there's a scene where Shalini attempts to call the first family she stayed with in her journey. They have an interlocutor call her back, and he tells her to never call that number again, that no one wants to talk to her. And that's how I found myself feeling about the character: after spending the story with Shalini, I never want to hear from her again.
**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Four and a half out of five stars; The Martian is the surprisingly upbeat tale of a person who survives for years after bei**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Four and a half out of five stars; The Martian is the surprisingly upbeat tale of a person who survives for years after being accidentally stranded on Mars. The book is engaging, positive, and makes you remember to take stock of what you have (literally), especially when things are at their darkest.
The Martian is yet another book that I came to only after having already seen the big-screen adaptation. The movie was good, clean fun, and as a result I wanted to read the source material for the script. I was not disappointed.
Andy Weir accomplished multiple near-impossible tasks with his book: he created a work of fiction that feels like it could one day soon be fact, he wrote a tale that emphasizes math and science without getting boring, and he presents a story that should be loaded with depression and despair in a way that is hopeful and uplifting. And he did all of this while maintaining and heightening an air of suspense in the novel that never dissipated, even though I had seen the movie first and knew how everything ended. Reading the book, I knew that Mark Watney had to be saved, but despite this plot armor I groaned at every mishap and practically cheered out loud with every success. The tension lasts throughout the book, and it's really only when Mark is finally back onboard his ship with his crew mates that I was finally able to breathe again.
As full disclosure, I'm not a huge science fiction reader, but that was the final thing that I found impressive about The Martian. I didn't have to be a huge sci-fi fan to enjoy it, and quite honestly, it was the humanity of the story that I personally felt made the book a compelling read. Mark was stranded and alone, facing near-certain starvation unless he got killed by some other mishap first, and yet he still remained calm. He simply took stock of what he had available, got creative with how to repurpose the things he had at his disposal, and kept his mind actively engaged and positive. That's a pretty good mantra for life, whether you're stuck on Mars or just trying to make it through to the next paycheck back here on Earth!
A final note: The Kindle version of the book had a Q+A with the Andy Weir after the story was complete, and I loved how he described his writing process. He started with his passion for both science and writing and from there, as Weir describes it, the story came together as he daydreamed horrible scenarios for a really unlucky astronaut. Beyond the actual story creation, he describes how he posted the novel in serial format to his website, built an audience, and eventually published on Amazon before he ever got an agent, a book deal, and of course, movie rights. His story is a dream scenario in and of itself for a writer, and was some cool "bonus footage" to read through after the novel was complete. The Martian was a great read from beginning to end, and is highly recommended for anyone who loves space, sci-fi, or just a really fun story.
**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three and a half stars out of five; The Handmaid’s Tale makes the reader sick to the stomach about the idea of a world so u**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Three and a half stars out of five; The Handmaid’s Tale makes the reader sick to the stomach about the idea of a world so unjust, yet not all that far removed from our own.
Early last year, my wife started watching the Hulu version of The Handmaid's Tale. I was in the room while it was on, and slowly but surely I found myself being pulled into the story with her. The show was brutal, depressing, and yet oddly riveting. I wanted to know how, or if, Offred was going to survive the ordeal she was caught in. And of course, as a book nerd, I wanted to read the original story because we all know that the book is always better than the movie version, right?
For what it's worth, the television show actually did a pretty amazing job of following the book. Sure there were a few discrepancies, but overall I felt that any of the changes between the two were done as a result of the different method of storytelling as opposed to a willful intent to change the message of the book. And that message is powerful.
Atwood's world, Gilead, is similar to ours in many respects; this makes it all the worse for the characters who are caught within. They can see things they recognized from another life such as a hospital or a school, but now these places have been altered toward new purposes. This lends itself to a feeling of unbelievability, a sense that this new world can't be real. And therein, for me, lied the pathos of the story. I could only imagine how it must have felt fro Offred, the narrator, to be taken from her previous, normal life and to suddenly be placed in the hands of religious tyrants hell-bent on making her into a surrogate mother for the elite. She knew her surroundings, knew that people who she loved, such as her daughter, were still alive in the vicinity, but she was utterly helpless to take so much as a single step toward connecting back to this life. It's a nightmare existence, and for Offred, it's one that has no end date. Indeed, the only people she knew who had ever managed to "escape," had done so by hanging themselves. Her situation is hopeless, and Atwood conveys this feeling of despair wonderfully throughout the novel.
For me, the book is a double-edged sword. It's feminist literature, and as a man reading the story I was initially disposed to feel like a member of the "enemy camp." I kept it in mind as I went through the novel that I would probably find fault with the society of Gilead, but somehow find a silver lining to it just because I was reading the story from a male perspective. In the end, however, I didn't have that experience at all. In fact, I found myself feeling more so that everyone in the story was complicit in some degree of wrongdoing. The revolution that led to Gilead was led by men, yes, but these men were supported and enabled by their wives. The Aunts, the women who trained and disciplined the handmaidens, do so out of a desire to have power and a position in society. Even the handmaidens had a choice to some degree; keeping quiet and going along to avoid pain or even death was a choice. Some, like Offred's friend Moira, show that rebellion is an option, and throughout the book Offred describes people who had been executed for a range of crimes that almost always had something to do with failing to conform.
While it sounds trite to say that the handmaids had an option, even though that option was likely death, Atwood drives home the point that people can be manipulated and adapt to new realities. She does this best through the scene of Particicution, or Salvaging, when the handmaids themselves get whipped into a frenzy by one of the Aunts, Aunt Lydia, and take part in beating a man to death. They are told they're doing so because he's a rapist, when in reality he's likely just a part of the underground rebellion. The scene goes a long way to show that good and evil exists on both sides, and there is definitely a sense of irony to a scene wherein a man who wants to help women is beaten to death by the same women for whom he risked his life.
Atwood's novel is powerful, and at the very least makes you think of just what would have to happen in our own society for a Gilead-like situation to arise. More than that though, it makes the reader think of what part they want to have in society: are they happy with the way things are? Do they support the status quo? And if not, what are they doing to change it? Are they simply going along to get along, and if so, does that make them better or worse than the people above them with whom they disagree? At what level is passive complicity in a crime just as bad as the crime itself?
The Handmaid's Tale poses tough questions, and it's a stark and disturbing read. It's the opposite of escapism; it's nearly a call to arms, a chance to think about the world you want to live in. It's a chance to ask yourself what you're willing to accept, of your government and yourself, and to think of just how far you would go to stay true to your ideals when the worst happens.
**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Five stars out of five; Operation Mincemeat serves as a testament that truth is stranger than fiction. MacIntyre delivers t**spoiler alert** OVERALL: Five stars out of five; Operation Mincemeat serves as a testament that truth is stranger than fiction. MacIntyre delivers the story with a deft touch, and makes the book read like a WWII spy novel without sacrificing accuracy.
What do you get when you combine Hitler, a dead body, a race car driver, and the guy who wrote the James Bond books? Amazingly, you get the ridiculous and yet somehow very real story of how the a covert operation in World War II that helped the Allies safely land an invasion force in Sicily which paved the way for the ultimate defeat of the Axis powers. The author of Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre, managed to craft a nonfiction story so compelling and with such forceful characters that it's hard to believe the book is real. It's also hard to believe that the story is so little known; I mean, World War II has obviously been the setting of thousands of novels, movies, and stories, but this one truly stands out.
The story follows the trail of two particular British intelligence agents, Ewen Montagu of naval intelligence and Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 as they attempted to develop a military deception aimed at influencing the highest decision makers in Nazi Germany, all the way to Hitler himself, to make the wrong choice about where to strengthen their borders against a planned Allied invasion. To do this, the Brits decided that top-secret "information" had to find its way into enemy hands, but this information had to clear several hurdles. It had to contain information that was false but plausible, it had to look authentic, and it had to get into German hands in a way that would not have it seem like an obvious plant. Montagu and Cholmondeley considered the task, and ultimately came up with an obvious solution: fake a plane crash, float a dead body out to sea with the forged documents, have it catch the currents so as to end up in German waters, and finally, have the captured documents pass German inspection. Nothing too hard, right?
The story is riveting from beginning to end, and explains in detail how all of the things mentioned above came to pass. You're introduced to spies in Portugal and Spain, you're introduced to German intelligence officers who could have auditioned for roles as Keystone Cops, and you learn about the culture of both sides in ways most people just don't know or could imagine. I mean seriously, the necessities of war pressed even the dead into service (shoutout to Glyndwr Michael, the unfortunate and unwitting person whose untimely demise made him the Bernie/hero of this story). If all of that weren't enough, there's cross-dressing intelligence officers, intelligence offices filled with pretty girls (this based on the theory that "the prettiest girls...would be less likely to boast to their boyfriends about the secret work they were doing"), and even a cameo from Winston Churchill. As far as World War II spy novels go, it has everything... and it's all true!
Even with everything I mentioned above, I found the most interesting part of the book to be the details and personal flourishes that Montagu and Cholmondeley placed into making the operation a success. Everything had to be thought out, to include clothing for the body, wreckage debris, personal effects in the briefcase besides the forged documents such as photos of "family," the rate of decay of a human body; the list goes on and on. To dream up a plot such as Operation Mincemeat would be fun for amateur historians; to have actually placed the operation in motion and to have lived the story as reality would be a tale to last a lifetime.
Ultimately, the book's moral struck me as being that a job well done, especially when the outcome of the job had a tangible impact on the fortunes of war and the history of the world. This is arguably worth well more than fame and fortune and this is good, because for the most part the names of Montagu and Cholmondeley are unlikely to last in the history books. But their exploits, outrageous as they were, will live on forever.