A House in the Sky

Before you begin to judge me for straying yet again from the List after I just said that I would return to it as soon as I finished Asimov’s Foundation series, hear me out.

I had to.DSC_0011

…I did!

Okay, listen. When a region recommends a book to its entire community, it behoves me to pay attention. This is what the Waterloo Region does with their One Book, One Community program. Their 2016 pick is A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett.

One would think there would be no copies left in the library – the whole region is trynna read this thing! There would be waiting lists for the waiting lists, right? Right! EXCEPT there happened to be ONE copy at the Express Checkout desk the exact moment I looked it up, and an exceptionally nice library angel willing to guard it until I got there. Coincidence? Not likely. This was kismet.

So you see, I really had no choice, I had to read it.

So I did.

I blew through this book in a matter of days, which was undoubtedly assisted by the fact that I’ve been sick and therefore relegated to the couch and bed with nothing else to do in my spare time but read. I consumed this book, and was consumed by it.

A House in the Sky is Amanda Lindhout’s story of her 460-day kidnapping in Somalia. In the book, she provides context for her readers with details of her childhood in Alberta and how she came to develop a deep sense of wanderlust. In her early twenties, an adult who was no longer tethered to parents, she began to travel the world in a way that would make even the well-travelled amongst us jealous. Adopting a lifestyle which enabled her to set off for months at a time, Amanda travelled to over 46 countries, returning to Canada only to refill her bank account. Once financing was in place, she was off again. Her approach to travelling reminded me of the television series Departures, except Scott and Justin had a cameraman and a filming budget, and Amanda had only her waitressing savings.

Amanda’s wanderlust evolved into an aspiration to become a photojournalist, which landed her in war zones for gigs. In 2008, she travelled to Somalia with her friend Nigel to try to get photos they could sell, and it is there they were kidnapped and held for ransom for 15 months.

Amanda’s retelling of her time spent in captivity is hard to envision. Not because it’s poorly written, but because it’s traumatic. While reading the book, I kept thinking to myself how amazing it was not only that she survived, but also that she continues to survive, every day since she was freed. I kept reminding myself “This is real. This really happened. She actually lived through this and people actually did this to her.”

I was also struck by the strength it must have taken to relive those 15 months, in each horrific detail, in order to write this book.

What will I take away from reading this book?

I think I will take with me the strength of the inner self. I am astounded by Amanda’s ability to survive her kidnapping, and even more so by her attitude and perspective on, well, everything. That little voice inside her head is what kept Amanda going so strong for so long – we all have that little voice, but it’s hard to listen to it sometimes.

On days when I was really struggling…the voice posed questions. It said, In this exact moment, are you okay? The answer, in that exact moment, was steadying: Yes, right now I am still okay.

– Lindhout & Corbett, A House in the Sky, p.294

I need to make that voice of mine an ally, instead of always arguing with it, and find my own strength, so I know it’s there when I need it.

 

 

Forward the Foundation (all the spoilers are in here)

*spoilers – if you don’t want to know who dies, don’t read this post*

Forward the F76679oundation is my favourite book the series so far, after Foundation itself. Despite being the second book in the series chronologically, it is obvious that it was the last book Asimov wrote. I say this because there is a distinct improvement in the portrayal, and representation, of female characters in this book compared to the others I’ve read in the series.

I do find refuge in knowing that I am not alone in calling out Asimov’s misrepresentation of women in his Foundation series. I thought I might be, for when discussing the books and my opinions with my husband, who had also read the series, he didn’t share my views regarding the treatment of women in the books. He was surprised that the treatment of women and the dynamic between Dors and Seldon seemed to be my focus. He also pointed to the fact that Asimov assigned a female character as Seldon’s protector (Dors) as evidence that Asimov was not, in fact, sexist.

You know what? That’s true. Asimov could have easily made Seldon’s bodyguard a man and worked in Dors some other way. But Dors wasn’t a woman, was she? She was a robot. And Bayta and Arcadia were Controlled by male psychohistorians. And Raschelle’s only weakness was her womanhood.

We had different interpretations – which is fine, that happens – but to me the sexism and stereotyping were so blatant and persistent throughout the series, it struck me as odd that I would be the only one to see it. It seemed so apparent to me that I thought that in order to deny its existence one would have to be choosing not to see it; turning a blind-eye, diminishing or dismissing it.

Then I reconsidered: perhaps it is possible that the sexist treatment of women in Asimov’s novels stands out more to women because we, as readers, are more aware of them. Our experiences have shaped us to recognize inequalities (especially those against women) when we see them. I think this can be said about any group who has been discriminated against – members of that group are more aware of the inequalities which create obstacles in their lives, and more likely to call them out. Men have not had the same experiences as women in terms of gender-based stereotypes. Does this make them less aware of the inequalities which surround them? Is this one of those  “till it happens to you” situations?

Turning to the interwebs to see what others thought about Asimov’s Foundation series specifically within the context of the treatment of women, I was relieved to find many others shared my interpretation. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy being right? There is a great post here which echoes my sentiments (and has much better writing!), and a pretty good and balanced discussion thread on Goodreads here. If you’re interested.

There is an argument that the books should be treated as products of their time; written in the 1950s, could one really expect the treatment of women to be any different? And to that I say yes. First, other sci-fi authors from the era managed to envision egalitarian or at least gender-equal worlds. Second, considering the author identified as a feminist and was writing a futuristic novel about the evolution of society? HELL YES.

Like I said, Forward does offer some improvements – for example, two of the four parts in the book have female title-characters (Dors Venabili and Wanda Seldon) and Wanda is credited with revolutionizing and saving psychohistory. It is nice to see this kind of progression and improvement in Asimov’s writing. I would hope it comes as a result of the evolution of his own personal views, however after reading multiple accounts of how he was known for sexual harassment in the workplace (click here, here, and here), I’m not going to get my hopes too high. Interesting that Asimov considered himself a feminist…

There are some really interesting stories and ideas presented in Asimov’s Foundation series, if you can get past his issues with female characters. Obviously, psychohistory sounds hella cool. As I’ve mentioned, I believe this to be the future application, and evolution, of actuarial science. Also, the sociology of Trantor is in itself a fascinating study, as is the concept of the causes of the fall of empire and the conditions and processes by which society rebuilds. Then there’s robots, mentalics, the representation of religion and the supernatural…this is some really interesting stuff, you guys!

OKAY. BACK TO THE BOOK – Forward the Foundation. 

The book was good. It provides closure to the story lines of some my more beloved characters from Prelude, before they disappear entirely in Foundation. We say goodbye to Daneel (though I’m willing to bet he shows up again later), Dors, Cleon, and Raych (NOOOOO).

I loved Raych from the start. The little gavroche just melted my heart. I’m glad that Asimov made him a prominent character in both Prelude and Forward, providing readers the opportunity to see him grow in to an adult and find out how his story ends. Isn’t closure a wonderful thing?

I would like to know, however, where this whole mind-meld ability of Wanda’s and others comes from. That was never explained…was it a natural evolution in humans? A mutation? If it’s a natural evolution, then it is logical that it would continue to occur throughout the galaxy, and not be isolated to the Second Foundation. In this case, the Second Foundationers should be able to account for the inevitability of the Mule, or another like him, in their psychohistory calculations.

Question: Where are the aliens and other races? Twenty-five million planets and everyone is human?

Only two left!

Wait, what??

I started Forward the Foundation last night and this morning, page 21, the beginning of Ch. 4, stopped me dead in my tracks:

What do you mean you don’t understand Dors’ knowledge of robots, Hari? What do you mean you don’t understand her true relationship with Demerzel? What do you mean you don’t know why she stayed with you?

The answer to all of these questions is clearly that she’s a robot, which you deduced and confronted her about at the end of Prelude, which you also decided that you, and I quote, “don’t care!” Hari, you said that multiple times. You described her as inhuman. You told her she was different. You said you knew and that you didn’t care.

So what gives??

I know there were 5 years between the two books but there’s no way Asimov is that bad at continuity – consider the rest of the series (and his two other series which occur in the same Galaxy) as proof.

One possible interpretation is that Hari has convinced himself that he was wrong, that Dors isn’t a robot. Even that he never explicitly said she was a robot at the end of Prelude and was never sure to begin with, and now he’s decided to believe she’s human because that’s a nicer thing for him to believe.

I went back and reviewed the last chapter of Prelude to make sure I didn’t misread it. Maybe it read in to it with too much of a bias – maybe this other interpretation is possible.

Nope.

I just don’t see how Dors and Hari can have the kind of confrontational dialogue they have at the end of Prelude and then Hari can seemingly behave as if that exchange never happened. The narrative just doesn’t connect for me.

Confused, I briefly googled around to see if there were forums or posts on the interwebs which could help me understand this about-face. It looks like there are some out there, but they are riddled with spoilers of the remaining books in the series.

It looks like all I can do here is keep reading and see how this plays out.

But, for the record, I’m calling shenanigans.

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So many questions

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I finished Prelude to Foundation last night and I have SO MANY QUESTIONS!

  • Is Daneel the Mule? No, that doesn’t make sense – the Mule has precious feelings and Daneel does not. Is the Mule related to Daneel? Offspring?
  • Can robots have offspring?
  • Who is Daneel in the Foundation books, then? Does he make it to those books or is he discovered and killed?
  • If he is killed, how many robots remain in the post-collapse galaxy?
  • Daneel talks about a Plan B to save the galaxy outside of psychohistory – is Star’s End his plan B, or is that Seldon’s Plan B?
  • If Star’s End is Seldon’s Plan B, then is creating a species who can tamper with human emotions Daneel’s Plan B?
  • If that is his Plan B, why doesn’t he tell Hari about it so that he can consider it in his psychohistory calculations?

It could be that all of these questions are answered in Forward the Foundation, or in one of the other two books in the series: Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. Holy crap I have three books left to read? Dune didn’t take this long.

Moving on to other topics. I found the rest of the book since my last post to be less blatantly sexist. Dors does a good job of defending herself and being a strong female character, calling out gender-based stereotypes and prejudices when she comes across them. Raschelle was also an example of strong female leadership. Asimov wrote these women to be strong, so good on him for that.

It is too bad, then, that Raschelle’s only perceived weakness, which allows her to be defeated in the end, is her womanhood. It is also too bad that in the end Dors, an consistently strong and intelligent female character, turns out not to be a woman at all, but a robot. I wish Asimov would have left Dors a woman.

I could have done without the last couple of chapters as well, where Hari, desperate as he is for companionship and love, more or less forces himself and his affection on to Dors. How many times does this woman have to turn you down, Hari?

She tells him that he should find other historians to work with him. He says he wants her. He knows she’s a robot who has to follow the Laws of Robotics, so she has to make sure psychohistory happens, so he tells her that if she leaves he won’t work. She stays.

She tells him she is incapable of love, and that the only time she engages in physical intimacy is when she feels that to not do so would hurt the person coming on to her. She has never asked to be, nor wanted to be, kissed. Hari decides he doesn’t care because he wants her and that’s that (that’s almost a direct quote). So he tells her to kiss him, and she doesn’t want to hurt him, so she does. Now Dors is his historian/lover robot.

Well, Hari wouldn’t be the first to have a robot for a lover, I guess…

So far my sense is that I should have read iRobot instead.

Okay enough talking -gotta go to work!

I guess I wasn’t done yet… (“It’s okay you can trust me” cont’d)

but-wait-theres-more

Looks like I published my last post too early because I have more to say!

Later, during breakfast, Hari has a happy moment:

…looking at the woman on the other side of the table and feeling that she might make this exile of his seem a little less like exile. He thought of the other woman he had known a few years ago, but blocked it offer with a determined effort…” (p.88)

This effectively sets up a binary view of Dors and “the other woman” in the readers’ minds. Her character is now primarily defined by her contrast to Hari’s previous lover. Everything she does from here on out in the novel will be within the context of being Hari’s romantic interest.

I’m not surprised by this, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

At least Asimov writes Dors as an intelligent and educated character. Even then, however, Dors’ field of study – history – is almost immediately established as inferior and less useful than that of Hari’s – mathematics. Furthermore, its value is then only in what it can offer in servitude to Hari’s psyschohistory.

The subtext here is that although Dors is educated, her field is lofty and superfluous. It has no real societal value or potential for meaningful contribution. That is, until Hari and his psychohistory come along, suddenly giving purpose to Dors’ academic field; in essence, to her work and education. What a knight-in-shining armour, rescuing her from a life of obscurity and inconsequential study and giving her work merit and significance, am I right? Barf.

Then there’s this lovely exchange, when Hari asks to use her department’s library:

“Would I be able to get permission to use the history library?”

Now it was she who hesitated. “I think that can be arranged. If you work on mathematics programming, you’ll probably be viewed as a quasi-member of the faculty and I could ask for you to be given permission. Only -“

“Only?”

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you’re a mathematician and you say you know nothing about history. Would you know how to make use of a history library?”

Seldon smiled. “I suppose you use computers very much like those in a mathematics library.”

“We do, but the programming for each speciality has quirks of its own. You don’t know the standard reference book-films, the quick methods of winnowing and skipping. You may be able to find a hyperbolic interval in the dark…”

“You mean hyperbolic integral,” interrupted Seldon softly.

Dors ignored him (p.91)

When Dors thinks Hari might not know something, she has to take special care to protect Hari’s feelings. She first explains she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, then presents her concern about his lack of specialized knowledge using his own words: ‘I’m not saying you don’t anything about history, you said you don’t know anything about history.’ Even then she doesn’t say outright that he doesn’t know how to work the computers, but instead asks him whether he would be able to. This invites him not only to demonstrate his intelligence (“I know things!”) but also for her to explain why it’s only the nuances he wouldn’t know, and that’s through no fault of his own (“each speciality has quirks of its own”).

Then, when she mistakes “hyperbolic integral” for “hyperbolic interval” Hari interrupts her and corrects her without any pretext or explanation or care for her feelings. Just BAM! You’re wrong and I’m smarter than you.

When Hari was at a disadvantage, Dors took care not to hurt his ego and strategically set up the conversation so that he doesn’t come out feeling stupid. Contrastingly, when Dors makes a mistake with a mathematical term, even though Hari knows mathematics is not her area of specialization, he’s right in there with his correction. “Softly” my ass.

I do like that Dors ignores him and keeps going, though. You go, girl.

SO THEN When Dors offers to help him learn by inviting him to join a course she gives on library use, Hari asks for private lessons with a “suggestive tone.” Giggity giggity goo!

She turns him down, but again does so in a way that protects his feelings and ego:

She did not miss it [his suggestive tone]. “I dare say I could [give you private lessons], but I think you’d be better off with more formal instruction…You will be competing with the other students all through and that will help you learn. Private tutoring will be far less efficient, I assure you” (p.92)

She diffuses the rejection by framing it to be in his interest, rather than as an actual rejection of his advance. This makes the rejection easier for Hari to accept, because it provides him with an ‘out’ which enables him to walk away, pride intact, which is not as embarrassing as an out-right rejection. Dors even appeals to Hari’s competitiveness, offering him an opportunity to take up a challenge, turning this conversation from one where Hari has to accept rejection to one where he is accepting a challenge.

Wow. I see Dors has played Protect-the-Male-Ego before. Well played, Dors, well played indeed.

joan well played

It’s okay, you can trust me, I’m hot and female.

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When you find yourself in a situation where you’re being hunted by the government on an unfamiliar planet where you don’t know anyone, it can be hard to know who to trust. This is because literally everyone who is near you might be under orders to kill or capture you. Sounds stressful! So – how can you judge whether someone is on your side or if they’re waiting to end you?

This is the situation Hari Seldon found himself in shortly after delivering his paper at a conference on Trantor. The paper introduced Hari’s ingenious new application of mathematics to predicting the future, which he dubbed ‘psychohistory.’ He didn’t like the way “psychosociology” sounded. The Emperor, Cleon, heard about his paper, and thought to himself “The ability to predict the future seems like it could be useful to me. Bring him to me so I can make him do my bidding!” Hari declined and the Emperor and his right-hand man, Demerzel*, are now hunting him down.

*Demerzel sounds like the name of a prescription drug, doesn’t it?

With the help of Hummin, a weird spy-slash-revolutionary-slash-journalist, Hari gets away. Hummin puts him in a room in the University, where apparently the government isn’t allowed (kind of like fighting in churches back in the day? — this is holy ground! You can’t kill me here!)  and tells Hari those famous words you always hear before shit gets real: You stay here, don’t move. I’ll be right back. But also be really careful because even though the government isn’t allowed in here, they can still have operatives all over the place and you have no way of knowing who is working for them.

The next morning there’s a knock at the door. It’s a woman Hari has never met before. Says she’s a friend of Hummin’s, sent here to help him. Is Mystery Woman friend or foe? How can Hari tell?

Hari thinks for a minute: can I trust her? Well, let’s think about this. She’s hot, and I would definitely like to have sex with her, so beep boop beep (those are my mental math calculation noises) – she passes! Let’s let her in to my room which has no windows or other forms of escape! After all, hotness = trustworthiness, right!?

So he lets her in, and she doesn’t kill him (yet) which is good, I guess. Then he finds out she’s a professor. WAIT WHAT??!?! But she’s a woman and she looks so bangable! How is this possible? Or, as Hari puts it: “”Sorry,” said Hari, smiling in his turn, “but you can’t expect to look twenty-four and not raise doubts as to your academic status” (p.85). In reality, Dors is only about five years Hari’s junior.

I feel like I’m reading Starship Troopers all over again. Except that book was written in 1959 and Asimov penned Prelude to Foundation in 1988.

Asimov, COME ON, DUDE!

Let’s look at how Asimov introduces and first describes some of his male characters. Here is how he describes Emperor Cleon I when he is first introduced:

Cleon has been Emperor for just over ten years…he could manage to look stately…though Cleon’s hair was light brown in hologram and reality alike, it was a bit thicker in the holograph. There was a certain asymmetry to his real face, for the left side of his upper lip raised itself a bit higher than the right side…And if he stood up…he would have been seen to be 2 centimeters under the 1.83-meter height that the image portrayed – and perhaps a bit stouter.” (p.3-4)

And here is Hari Seldon’s own description:

Hari did not make an impressive appearance at this time. Like the Emperor Cleon I, he was thirty-two years old, but he was only 1.73 meters tall. His face was smooth and cheerful, his hair dark brown, almost black, and his clothing had the unmistakable touch of provinciality about it.” (p.6)

And finally, Chetter Hummin:

He was tall, with broad shoulders and no sign of a paunch, darkish hair witha  glint of blond, smooth-shaven, a grave expression, an air of strength though there were no bulging muscles, a face that was a touch rugged – pleasant, but with nothing “pretty” about it.” (p.24)

Now, let’s look at how Asimov introduces Dors Venabili, the first and only female character in the book so far. The first thing we learn about Dors is that she has a “rather gentle” voice (p.81). That’s sweet. Let’s count that as a point towards the ‘probably not here to kill me’ column. Wait, sorry, I meant the ‘probably didn’t bring a gang of men here to kill me, because women can’t be murderers’ column. Good thinking, Hari. Even though she looks like a “personable young woman,” best to check the hallway to see whether “there might be half a dozen hostile young men with her” (p.82). There aren’t any men with her? PHEWF! Danger averted. That was a close one.

Side bar: back in the day, I would have been an assassin, for sure! I would have made all the money! I’m short AND a woman – that’s like a double negative on the threatening scale. NO ONE WOULD SUSPECT ME! Not to mention my ability to sneak in through small spaces. I think I missed my true calling in life, people.

Having established that this woman is non-threatening by virtue of her womanhood, what is the first thing that she does in his room? She walks over to his bed of course! (Asimov, seriously, man?!).

At this point, Hari is comfortable in the knowledge that this woman is on his side, because she is personable, and gentle, and has mentioned Hummin’s name in passing. Having established her as safe, we get our first description of Dors:

She was not very tall, average height for a woman, he judged. Her hair was reddish-gold, though not very bright, and was arranged in short curls about her head. (He had seen a number of women in Trantor with their hair so arranged. It was apparently a local fashion that would have been laughed at in Helicon.)” (p.82)

So far so good, sticking with the height-and-hair descriptive combo he’s used for the boys. Maybe a bit more detail given and a bit more judgemental, but NBD. Then he goes on:

She was not amazingly beautiful, but was quite pleasant to look at, this being helped by full lips that seemed to have a slight humorous curl to them. She was slim, well-built, and looked quite young. (Too young, he thought uneasily, to be of use perhaps.)” (p.82-83)

I am now picturing Hari and Asimov like this:

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Second Foundation: what a twist!

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***spoilers***

seriously…so many spoilers.

Similar to Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation is presented in two parts. Part One was about the Mule’s search for the Second Foundation, and Part Two was about the Foundation’s search for the same thing. Guess which one finds it? Guess where it is?

GUESS! GUESS!

Okay, fine, don’t guess. I’ll just tell you.

The Mule doesn’t find it, but he does die trying, so good on him for perseverance (don’t get mad, I warned you there were spoilers). Team Foundation wins! And who figures it all out? A 14-year old girl! Woo!

…except not really. The Second Foundation actually gives itself up to the 14-year old girl by Controlling her – a system of subtle mind-manipulation. So…hurray teamwork?

The Mule spends five years searching every inch of the galaxy he can looking for the Second Foundation, and comes up empty handed. He even blows up a planet in the effort, which was not a very classy move on his part. It’s shortly after the planet blow-up that he is killed, which is a nice moment for the readers.

But then, something weird happened to me in Part One of the book. You see, the Second Foundation is a stranger to me, but the Mule is not. The Mule is someone I met a while ago and got to know. He is a sad, neglected clown-man with a severe inferiority complex, taking out his feelings of emasculation on an entire galaxy. Despite that, I found myself rooting for him – which makes no sense at all. I’m not defending it, I’m just letting you know what happened to me, and it was weird.

Part Two fixed all of that for me, thankfully. I still wasn’t voting for the Second Foundation, though (why do I dislike them??). I was on Team Arkady #FTW.

In Part Two, which takes place 60 years after Part One, we’re introduced to Arkady, a young woman who doesn’t know she has puppet masters controlling her. Which is twisted for so many reasons. I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole; I’ll never climb back out.

MOVING ON.

Arkady’s dad joins a secret Foundation committee dedicated to finding the Second Foundation. Arkady figures out that the Second Foundation has been on Terminus all along (“DAD! OMFG! A CIRCLE HAS NO END! GET IT?? NO END!!!” – I’m paraphrasing here.) Her dad, Darrell, and his gang of anti-Second-Foundationers hunt them down and kill them all. So that takes care of that, everyone is safe again, and the Foundation now runs unopposed for position of Future Ruler of the Galactic Empire 2.0.giphy

EXCEPT IT WAS A TRICK! (cue dramatic sound effect)

it turns out the whole thing was set up by those sneaky Second Foundationers in order to make the Foundation think they’re dead and no longer a threat, when really they still are.What a twist! Terminus was never their HQ. They were lying the whole time!

Now I’m probably moving on the Prelude to Foundation. I say probably because I also picked up a few new books this week, and still have a number of unread books waiting for me on my bookshelf, not to mention that I need to finish Henry IV, already! So, yes, probably.

Second Foundation (spoilers)

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I really enjoyed Foundation and Foundation and Empire books one and two in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I found Asimov’s strategy for dealing with a story line which spans across nearly a hundred years to be enjoyable, and the transition characters do a good job of bridging generations. This approach was undoubtedly out of necessity, as the books were originally published as separate short stories.

The series opens with the foretelling of the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which is exactly what it sounds like. Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian genius (psychohistory = using math to predict the future…a.k.a. the future application of actuarial science), predicts that the Empire is about to implode and he puts together a plan to drastically expedite the process of re-establishment. This process will take a thousand years, though, and although humanity has figured out how to predict the future, it has not had the same success with time travel or immortality. As a result, old Hari will be long dead by the time the galaxy settles itself out. That, however, is not a concern for Hari, because his plan is just that good.

Essentially we are presented with an entire galaxy which is reset to zero in evolutionary terms; although they have space ships they’re still barbarians without nuclear power (animals, right?!). Hari’s plan will take them through every step of evolution, culminating in the establishment of a brand spankin’ new and shiny Empire 2.0.

What is really interesting is that, in this plan, rule by trade (i.e. economy/capitalism) is an evolutionary step-up from religious rule. Chalk one up for the separation of church and state!

I’m now kind of stuck on Second Foundation. I don’t know if that’s because I’m reaching Foundation-overload, and I need to take a break from the series and come back to it, or if it’s because I haven’t invested myself in the fate of the Second Foundation at all, so I’m really not caring very much whether the Mule takes it over or not…

My husband is bugging me to eat the dinner he made me and play video games with him, so I’m going to go do that now.

Peace out!

Go Set A Watchman: It’s okay, Scout, I don’t understand men, either.

I am very up-front about my knowledge gap when it comes to American history. It’s my academic blindspot; it didn’t get much attention in elementary school, and then in university my History undergrad focused primarily on Canadian and European history.

So for me, reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are also whole new worlds of historical context for me to explore. This book (Go Set A Watchman) is so rich with historical references, it is not only a pleasure to read, but also incredibly educational, if you take the time to research the references being made in the book.

For example, before this I didn’t know that it was in 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. I didn’t know that the NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and that it was founded in 1909 and still stands today. I didn’t know that it was Scipio that burned Carthage to ground, and that Hannibal was one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Although I already knew Gilbert and Sullivan were hilarious, I was introduced to new G&S pieces I wasn’t familiar with before. I didn’t know that fig trees were poisonous, what a Coffee was, and that ‘Pounding the Pastor’ does not mean beating the crap out of the leader of your congregation.

You should know that few things in this world bring me greater joy than a book filled with annotations (my own annotations – I’m very particular about that, I don’t want other people’s notes). In high-school I lent my annotated copy of 1984 to someone, and he never returned it; I still mourn its loss. The act of annotation takes reading to a whole new level of engagement and interaction that you just don’t get if you let all the intricacies of the book pass you by. That is passive reading, and if you’re reading passively, why are you reading at all?

For example, Scout (ahum, sorry, Jean Louise) exclaims repeatedly that she doesn’t understand men throughout the novel. First, I hear you, sister. Men are exhaustingly complicated creatures trying to pass themselves off as just the opposite. But they’re not fooling anyone. Scout’s frustration at her inability to understand men, however, is a little bit deeper than that. Because she is a tomboy, and never quite identified as a girl, one would assume Scout would feel more at home in the company of men, and have some insights in to their psyches. One would be completely wrong. Scout’s character exists in this limbo between the prototypical mid-twentieth century woman and the prototypical man of the same century. Not quite fitting in with either group. Sound familiar, anyone? Just as easily as Scout screams out that she doesn’t understand men, she could yell the same about women.

BUT THERE’S MORE. It goes even deeper than that. When Scout says she doesn’t understand men, she means so much more. She means she doesn’t understand racism, sexism, she doesn’t understand social norms and double standards. She doesn’t understand politics and pride. She doesn’t understand expectations and the world around her. That’s some deep stuff, Scout.

I could go on. Uncle Jack is a gift to readers and history buffs everywhere. He is a treasure and we should cherish him.

My sacrosanct view of Atticus was shaken, but not completely shattered. After everything I heard and read before picking up this book I expected much more damage.

Go Set A Watchman is a definite re-read for me, and an immediate classic. I highly recommend it. If you do read it, do yourself a favour and take the time to look up those references you don’t understand. It will make all the difference.

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Oryx and Crake

My working theory is that Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx and Crake and then did this:

throwing-papers-up-in-airThen picked up the papers in random order and decided “There! That’s the order my book now.”

This novel follows no logical order. NONE WHATSOEVER. We’re in the present, now we’re in the past, now we’re in the present but having a flashback, now we’re in the future, now we’re in the past again, so on and so forth. Because Margaret Atwood does what she wants, she doesn’t care that you’re confused, and that you don’t know what’s going on, and that you can’t grasp the plot because it won’t stay in the same space and time for more than two chapters. She’s an artist, this is her design.

Oryx and Crake is an interesting read, if for no other reason than you spend the first three quarters of the book just trying to get your bearings and figure out what the eff is going on. It’s easy enough to establish early on that Snowman, the main character, is in some kind of post-apocalyptic world with neo-humanoids, and he’s the last human. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

The title characters, Oryx and Crake, only come in to full view at the end of the book. Little breadcrumbs of their identity are spread out throughout the book, shrouding them in a very generous aura of mystery. Full disclosure: I spent a decent chunk of the book trying to decipher whether Oryx even existed, or if she was just a figment of Snowman’s imagination.

I’m told this is a series and there are more books. I haven’t decided if I’m going to continue the series or not. I should probably get back to List reading at some point.

How I Feel About Margaret Atwood’s Writing: Some Background Information

I decided a long time ago that I do not like Margaret Atwood’s writing. I remember when it happened, actually. I was a young girl, an avid reader, and my mom handed me Cat’s Eye. After that I decided I never wanted to read Atwood again, thank you very much.

Later, in high school, I was given the option of reading Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 or Brave New World. I elected to go with 1984. This was not a difficult decision. Avoiding having to read Margaret Atwood novels was actually (and this is true) one of the core reasons why I never registered for Canadian Lit or Women’s Lit courses. I missed so much!

It wasn’t until adulthood (and this list) that I took up Handmaid’s Tale. Even then I did it as an audiobook. I maintain that Anne Hathaway Claire Danes’s amazing narration of it (available on Audible) was the only thing that got me through it. But this should come as no surprise; Anne Hathaway is a treasure, and everything is does is amazing. She did a great job. Claire Danes is one of those actresses who always surprises me. I expect not to like her, then I do. She was amazing in Baz Lurhman’s Romeo+Juliet and in Homeland. Let that be a lesson about expectations.

(ERRATA UPDATE 2015/09/24: I realized after publishing this post that it was Claire Danes, not Anne Hathaway that narrated Handmaid’s Tale. Give me a break, it was a long time ago! So sorry to have led you all astray. The error has been addressed and resolved in the paragraph above. I maintain that everything Anne Hathaway does is amazing and that she is a treasure.)

I even tried to read that new one Margaret Atwood wrote…about debt…what was that called? Non-fiction. They made a documentary too. I should just Google it…but….nah….I don’t care enough.

So, when my brother-in-law said that Oryx and Crake was actually a really good read, and a departure from her typical writing, I decided “maybe I owe it to my Canadian heritage to give Margaret Atwood another go.” So I did. It was okay. Not awful. Better than I was expecting. I know, rave review, right?