Category archives: Recommended

The Handmaid's Tale

by Aug. 14, 2010 in Books, Recommended, Science Fiction

The Handmaid's Tale

Wow, it's been so long since I last posted that you're probably thinking I decided to read The Tale of Genji all over again. I did not, though, so I promise that's the last reference to the length of Genji that I'll make (in this post). No, the real reason I haven't been posting is due to a combination of being on vacation with no internet, and laziness. I was still reading, however, so let's get to that.

The Handmaid's Tale, sexual pun intended, is set in a futuristic dystopian society and tells the story of a Handmaid - a religiously and politically sanctioned concubine. The Handmaid who serves as our narrator is not a huge fan of her new role in society.

Though Atwood does an excellent job of creating a cohesive, well-realized, and clearly defined society, I would not go so far as to say the events she portrays are believable. I don't think our own society is just one step away from heading down this particular path. That isn't a criticism, however, because I don't think you have to consider this a real possibility to appreciate what Atwood is trying to tell us.

As a matter of fact, one of my favorite aspects of this book is how it captures both the bad qualities of the society before the new "Handmaid" regime is put in place, as well as the "Handmaid" regime itself. It would probably have been easier just to cast the latter regime in an evil light, but I appreciate that Atwood was willing to criticize the extremes of the pre-dystopian society as well.

I definitely recommend The Handmaid's Tale, especially to anyone interested in dystopian literature.  However, considering how well-crafted the book is, I don't think you have to be a fan of similar books to enjoy this book.

"Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations" (270).

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The Tale of Genji

by July 30, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

The Tale of Genji

If you've been reading this blog recently, you know that I've been reading (and enjoying) The Tale of Genji.  I'll do my best not to reiterate anything I've said already, but that shouldn't be hard considering there are so many great things happening in this book.

First of all, the briefest of synopses.  The Tale of Genji follows 4 generations of individuals in Japan's Imperial court during the late 10th Century (which is also when it was originally written).  Though Genji is the main character, he is not the only one we get to know in this epic tale.

Ultimately, though, it's not what happens in The Tale of Genji that makes it so appealing (not to say that there isn't a lot that happens.  Here's a quick rundown off the top of my head: sex, rape, death, cuckolding, spirit possession, exorcism, suicide, inclement weather, exile, love, jealousy, infidelity.)  It is the characters, and the reality of their hopes, fears, joys, heartaches, desires, and transgressions that make Genji such a compelling work of fiction.  Or, in Genji's own words:

"Not that tales accurately describe any particular person, rather, the telling begins when all those things the teller longs to …

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Tale of Genji - Update 3

by July 27, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Yes, you are seeing that picture correctly - I finished reading The Tale of Genji over the weekend.  I'll do a final post, database entry, etc later in the week, but for now I just want to bask in the glory of finishing an epic book.  Now I'm going to spend a week collecting my thoughts and trying to condense a months worth of reading in a few thousand words....

Quick aside - considering the numerous characters, titles, and interconnected relationships in The Tale of Genji, I'm also considering putting together a few tools to help anyone who wants to read it. More on that if I actually have the energy to compile the necessary data.

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Tale of Genji - Update 2

by July 21, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

If you are at all familiar with the Summer of Genji reading schedule, you will probably notice that I'm a little ahead of where I'm supposed to be at this point:

There are two reasons for this.  First of all, I really want to finish before going on vacation in the first week of August.  Bringing a book this big onto a plane simply seems absurd.  Second, though, is that the nature of this book begs for it to be read in huge chunks.  There are so many characters, often identified only through generic, frequently changing titles, that if you stop reading for even a day, it's easy to forget completely who you are reading about.

Plus, many of the best moments in the book consist of a subtle shift in the relationship between characters over the course of 50 or more pages.  If you didn't read it all at once, however, it is much harder to pick up on these shifts.  I've noticed several times that the first 20 minutes I spend reading in the evening are slow, and at times dull.  30 minutes later, however, I don't want to put the book down because some enthralling sub …

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First Line: Tale of Genji

by July 9, 2010 in Books, First Line, Fiction, Recommended

Let's jump right into it:

"In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty's Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor" (1).

This immediately reminded me of the opening line for Don Quixote, another lengthy, historic tale.  Just as Cervantes's claim that he can't remember quite where in La Mancha Don Quixote was from is brimming with irony, Genji's introduction strikes me as slightly ironic as well.  It may not be immediately evident (unless you consider just how long the book is), but Genji is rife with details about ancient Japanese court lifestyle.  Considering that, there must be some intentional humor in the narrator's claim that she can't quite remember whose reign it was.

Yet, at the same time, we must also consider the fact that this is a female author telling us about the behavior of an Emperor in somewhat unflattering terms.  Periodically throughout the book the narrator will address the reader directly, making claims about how it would not be appropriate of someone of her rank to reveal too much about what happened between these more noble characters.  This could simply be the first example of the narrator …

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Tale of Genji - Update 1

by July 6, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

I feel like I've been reading The Tale of Genji nonstop since I started last weekend.  Even so, though, I've still hardly made a dent in this massive book:

Don't get me wrong, though, it's really quite enjoyable.  As the characters were being introduced in the first few chapters it felt more like a collection of isolated short stories, but at this point things are coming together in a much more cohesive manner.  Additionally, the discussions happening over at the Summer of Genji blog are entertaining and informative.  To make things even more interesting, the translator of this edition of the book (Royall Tyler) has joined in on the conversation. I'd post more, but I need to get back to reading if I'm going to finish this book any time soon.

Oh, on a completely unrelated tangent, I implemented a new comment security feature to help prevent all the spam I've been getting recently.  If for some reason you are unable to successfully post a comment, please send me an email at scott [at] somesmart [dot] com.

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Summer of Genji

by June 28, 2010 in Books, Fiction, Recommended

Summer of Genji

I've had a copy of The Tale of Genji on my bookshelf for several years now.  It's status as the world's first novel (though that term may be a tad anachronistic) intrigued me, but it's size and scope (1120 pages/11th Century Japan) was intimidating.  Last week, however, I discovered the Summer of Genji - a group of readers who will be spending between now and August 30 reading and discussing The Tale of Genji.  With this discovery, I've decided it's finally time to get started on this massive epic.

Why am I making such a big deal out of this?  Well, for starters, it's a great idea to read a book like this online because, honestly, how else are you ever going to get a group of people together who are willing to read it? Plus, the whole Summer of Genji project is still in its infancy, and so there's time for you to join in as well.

Second, it's a massive book, which may result in a reduction in the number of blog posts, or at least an increase in the number of posts that aren't actually about books I've finished reading.  I will be reading …

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The Well at the World’s End Volume II

by June 22, 2010 in Books, Fantasy, Recommended

The Well at the World’s End Volume II

Considering The Well at the World's End was split into two volumes arbitrarily, it's not worth reiterating what I said in my post on Volume I.  No time passes between the volumes, and the quest for the Well picks up right where it left off.  What is worth mentioning, however, is how great the book continues to be.

Without the surprise of the language, or the need to grow accustomed to it, I had a great time reading Volume II.  Unfortunately, there's really no good way for me to explain what exactly I liked so much without spoiling specific moments.  Of course the experience of reading it would still be great, even if you knew everything that happens, but that's no reason to spoil such a great tale.

If, as I hope is the case, I've convinced you that you should read this book, but you don't have a friend or family member you can borrow it from, I have some great news.  You can actually download The Well at the World's End for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.  You can even put it onto your iPhone, iPad, Kindle or any other eReader that will accept ePub files. …

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Goose Girl (Audio)

by June 21, 2010 in Audio Books, Books, Fantasy, Recommended

Goose Girl (Audio)

Goose Girl is not the type of book that would normally catch my eye.  However, after reading Christy's review of the sequel I figured it would be worth requesting from the library and listening to it when I got the chance.  I had it for a few weeks and, honestly, I didn't have a plan to start it anytime soon until I saw Erin's claim that Shannon Hale "has not written a bad book".

Convoluted story of why I started reading it aside, I'm really glad that I did.  Goose Girl seems pretty straight forward at first - a crowned princess of a small kingdom is, unbeknownst to her, about to be sent off to marry the prince of a distant kingdom.  As the story progressed, though, I was consistently impressed both with the number of times the plot surprised me and with how well-realized the world and characters were.

True, I've only read one book by Shannon Hale now, but I can see why Erin would say she hasn't written a bad book.  In addition to a consistent, deep world full of entertaining characters, Goose Girl is also filled with some beautiful writing.  Even the first line ("She was …

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by June 11, 2010 in Books, Recommended, Science Fiction


Instead of listening to audio books during my daily commute, I have recently been enjoying lectures from The Great Courses.  These cover all types of subjects, from classical mythology, to Einstein's theory of relativity.  The one I just finished, however, was a 12 lecture series on the life and writings of C.S. Lewis.  I complimented this listening experience by reading Perelandra, the second book in Lewis's classic Space Trilogy.

I've read Perelandra before, as well as a number of Lewis's other works, but by listening to lectures discussing major themes of his work in general, while simultaneously reading a single work in depth, I was able to enjoy it at a much deeper level.  I encourage anyone with the time or opportunity to do something similar.

As for the book itself, Perelandra follows Ransom (a professor of philology) on another interstellar adventure - this time to Venus (or Perelandra).  While there, he becomes involved in Perelandra's own Edenic struggle to resist temptation.

I loved reading Perelandra. Lewis's ability to make the temptation believable, and compelling, is extremely impressive.  In fact, the dialogue of this book is far more exciting than the "action" moments.   Full of fascinating ideas, Perelandra …

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