The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


Summary

Offred is a direct product of before and after the establishment of the new Republic of Gilead. Once a free woman who could do as she pleased, Offred wakes up in a world of nightmares where her life has drastically changed in a short span of time. After the leaders of Gilead have decreed all capable women must dedicate their lives to reversing the country’s fallen birthrates, Offred is nothing more than a vessel waiting to be filled. Women who cannot give birth are given other roles and assigned a spot of the totem pole. Those who are old and unruly are sent to the dreaded Colonies.

Offred’s duty as a handmaid is to respect her Commander, serve the Commander’s wife, and deliver the family a baby after a successful ceremony. But Offred can’t help wonder, is all female automony really gone, or is there a resistance flickering in the distance?


Memorable Quotes

“We learned to whisper almost without a sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,” (4).

“I once had a garden. I can remember the smell of the turned earth, the plump shapes of bulbs held in the hands, fullness, the dry rustle of seeds through the fingers. Time could pass more swiftly that way. Sometimes the Commander’s Wife has a chair brought out, and just sits in it, in her garden. From a distance it looks like peace,” (12).

“There are no more magazines, no more films, no more substitutes; only me and my shadow, walking away from the two men, who stand at attention, stiffly, by a roadblock, watching our retreating shapes,” (22).

“The chances are one in four, we learned that at the Center. The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Deadwatch. That’s a kind of beetle, it buries carrion,” (112).

“They [men] aren’t a patch on a woman except they’re better at fixing cars and playing football, just what we need for the improvement of the human race, right?” (121).

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation,” (146).

“Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city,” (191).

“There are more important things. For instance: keep the others safe, if they are safe. Don’t let them suffer too much. If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves,” (195).

“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There’s something delightful about it, something naughty, secretive, forbidden, thrilling. It’s like a spell, of sorts. It deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with. In the paint of the washroom cubicle someone unknown had scratched: Aunt Lydia sucks. It was like a flag waved from a hilltop in rebellion. The mere idea of Aunt Lydia doing such a thing was in itself heartening,” (222).

“I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack,” (249).


Thoughts

It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up a book that is a page-turner yet difficult to read. Somehow I think this is what Atwood intended, but it still startled me. I figured it would be shocking and a call-to-action, but in some ways I guess didn’t really expect how much the topic matter would affect me. I picked up this book a couple of months ago on Independent Bookstore Day at the Green Apple on Clement Street. I had heard of it and had wanted to buy it for awhile but for whatever reason I held off until that day. Currently The Handmaid’s Tale is surging in popularity due to the release of the new Hulu series (which I have yet to watch, but I’m sure it’s great) and the current political climate.

About 25 pages or so into the book I updated my progress on Goodreads and noted: “I love the way Margaret Atwood keeps me on my toes. At times the atmosphere will feel idyllic. She illustrates soft pastels of the wives’ clothing, neat gardens, and gentle whispers. And then suddenly, she brings the tension back with one unsettling line. It’s a striking balance.” When I think about the beginning in particular, this is something which makes The Handmaid’s Tale feel unique so I’m glad I wrote down my first impressions.

The setting Atwood creates is meant to be disquieting, but parts of it are familiar. In my mind this vague familiarity helps orient the reader while also keeping them off-kilter long enough to know something about this world is very wrong. Offred lives in what appears to be some kind of town but it’s a community (of sorts) nonetheless. She lives in a house, shops for groceries (with a partner for supervision of course), takes baths, and eats meals. There are blooming gardens in the background and cars to be washed on the driveways. But life is not anywhere close to normal. Often Offred will go from being treated as a prized farm animal to a slave and there isn’t too much in between.

Offred’s situation isn’t revealed in the beginning, but there are hints along the way. About halfway through I got a good sense of what was going on but it was also mysterious enough to keep me reading. I appreciated these small unveilings throughout the book because they sustained a web of tension and prompted character development. Most of all, I felt a sense of patience reading each clue which really made me respect Margaret Atwood as an author. When I’m writing I always want to give away the punchline, but Atwood does an amazing job of holding off until she’s ready to reveal her secrets.

The ending wasn’t quite what I pictured, but it was everything I could hope it would be. Even though I finished this book a couple of days ago I still find it hard to think about. Maybe it’s because there’s never a definite conclusion about how to reverse the wrongs. How do we re-orient ourselves after everything has turned upside down?  In a world where women have been stripped of their rights and turned into objects only good for housework and babies, it’s a terrifying future to conceptualize. The power in The Handmaid’s Tale is it extends beyond a grim prediction into a warning. What that warning is may be up to you. For me, this may be a book I need to re-read because it just hits so close to home.

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Kafka on the Shore

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Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami


Summary

On the eve of his fifteenth birthday Kafka Tamura prepares to run away from his home in Nakano, Tokyo. Plagued by the absence of his mother and older sister as well as a cursed prophecy, Kafka dreams of running away in order to escape both his destiny and a form of himself. With every bit of courage he has, Kafka gathers all the money he can manage, packs his things, and jumps aboard a night bus headed for Shikoku.

Meanwhile, Nakata is an elderly man living in Nakano Ward on a meager subsidy from the government. Permanently disabled by a strange accident that occurred during his schooldays around the middle of the second World War, Nakata is unable to communicate clearly with other people. However, he finds solace in looking for family cats that have gone missing from around his neighborhood. What no one knows is Nakata spends most of his days talking (yes, talking) to the these cats in order to discover the whereabouts of the families’ missing pets. But when one day a certain cat goes missing from its beloved family, Nakata finds himself wrapped up in a dark situation that forces him to leave Nakano for good.

Through fleets of destiny too great to be simple coincidence or chance, Kafka and Nakata’s paths wind together to create a brilliant story full of mystery, misplaced time, magic, love, loss, and self-discovery.


Memorable Quotes

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing direction. You change direction, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step, There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine,” (page 3).

“All the students dress neatly, have nice straight teeth, and are boring as hell. Naturally, I have zero friends. I’ve built a wall around me, never letting anybody inside and trying not to venture outside myself. Who could like somebody like that?” (page 7).

“Your heart is like a great river after a long spell of rain, spilling over its banks. All signposts that once stood on the ground are gone, inundated and carried away by that rush of water. And still the rain beats down on the surface of the river. Every time you see a flood like that on the news you tell yourself: That’s it. That’s my heart,” (page 9).

“Some time in the middle of the night a hard rain begins to fall. I wake up every once in a while, part the chintzy curtain at the window and gaze out at the highway rushing by. Raindrops beat against the glass, blurring street lights alongside the road that stretch off into the distance at identical intervals as if they’d been set down to measure the earth,” (page 10).

“‘Gosh, what a long trip,’ she says tiredly. ‘I thought my lower back was going to give out. And my neck’s killing me. You aren’t going to catch me on an all-night bus again. I’m taking the plane now on, even if it’s more expensive. Turbulence, hijackings—I don’t care. Give me a plane any day,'” (page 32).

“When I open them, most of the books have the smell of an earlier time leaking out from between their pages—a special odour of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers,” (page 39).

“‘Your father sounds like an alien from outer space or something,’ Sakura says. ‘Like he came from some far-off planet, took on human form, kidnapped an earth woman and then had you. Just so he could have more descendants. Your mother found out, got frightened and ran away. Like in some film-noir science-fiction flick.’

I have no idea what to say,” (page 95).

“Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through, is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past, like ancient stars that have burned out, are no longer in orbit about our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about every day, too many new things we have to learn. New styles, new information, new technology, new terminology… But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us for ever, like a touchstone. And for me, what happened in the woods that day is one of those,” (page 104).

“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear,” (page 148).

“‘Speaking of contradictions,’ Oshima suddenly says, ‘when I first met you I felt a kind of contradiction in you. You’re seeking something, but at the same time you’re running away from all you’re worth,'” (page 164).

“The fish struck people, cars and roofs, but not apparently, from such a great height, so no serious injuries resulted. It was more shocking than anything else. A huge number of fish falling like hail from the sky—it was just positively apocalyptic,” (page 181).

“‘Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors  in judgement can be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here,” (page 196).

“I look for the 15-year-old girl in her and find her straight away. She’s hidden, asleep, like a 3-D painting in the forest of her heart. If you look carefully though, you can spot her. My chest starts pounding again, like somebody’s hammering a long nail into the walls surrounding it,” (page 267).

“My second day on the mountain passes leisurely, seamlessly. The only thing that distinguishes one day from the next is the weather. If the weather were the same I couldn’t tell one day from another. Yesterday, today, tomorrow—they’d all blur into one. Like an anchorless ship, time floats aimlessly across the broad sea,” (page 393).

“Even so, as I walk I get the feeling that something, somewhere, is watching me, listening to me, holding its breath, blending into the background, watching my every move. Somewhere far off, something’s listening to all the sounds I make, trying to guess where I’m going and why. I try not to think about it. The more you think about illusions, the more they’ll swell up and take on form. And no longer be an illusion,” (page 413).

“‘It all really happened, so you can’t undo it,’ Crow tells me. ‘She shouldn’t have abandoned you then, and you shouldn’t have been abandoned. But things in the past are like a plate that’s shattered to pieces. You can never put it back as it was, right?’

I nod. ‘You can never put it back as it was.’ He’s hit the nail on the head,” (page 430).


Thoughts

**First note: I’d like to address the quotes I chose to include in my “Memorable Quotes” section. If you read through every quote I included, (which I understand is a lot so no judgement from me if you didn’t) you may end up with the impression that this book is extremely long-winded and too caught up in itself to be enjoyable; maybe even cheesy in a sudo hyper-intellectual way. And while there are brief bits of overwhelming themes present in this specific book, that would be a misplaced impression overall. I want to stress that I chose those specific quotes because they stood out and were some of the most meaningful lines of text to me as a reader. But overall, the book is about five hundred pages so those quotes aren’t exactly representative of the writing style of the entire book. In fact, Kafka on the Shore is incredibly easy to read as it’s engaging and written beautifully.

This is my third Murakami book I’ve read and it certainly won’t be my last. Thinking back on my experience reading Kafka on the Shore I can confidently say its strongest point is the atmosphere it creates. When I think about Murakami’s books in general I mentally correspond them with colors. This may sound a little weird, but in my mind color and atmosphere are very much linked. And to give a better example of what I mean, I thought it would be fun to include some pictures of the places the characters visit in Kafka on the Shore. 

So to start, below I’ve pasted a general map of Japan I found online so you can see the distance between Tokyo and Shikoku.

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Map of Japan (credit: shutterstock)

Next is a picture of some buildings in Nakano Ward where both Kafka and Nakata begin their journeys.

 

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Buildings in Nakano Ward (credit: all photos by koji fujii  / nacasa & partners inc.
images courtesy of takeshi yamagata architects) Link: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/takeshi-yamagata-architects-chojyabashi-building/

The next set of pictures capture the beauty of the Great Seto Bridge leading into Shikoku. When Nakata and Hoshino drive to Shikoku, Nakata describes a breath-taking bridge and I believe this is the one he is referencing.

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View of the Great Seto Bridge (credit: https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/kagawa/greatsetobridge)
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View from the top of the Great Seto Bridge (credit: https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/kagawa/greatsetobridge)

 

Lastly, here is a picture I found of Takamatsu City on Shikoku Island. This is one of the main destinations for both Kafka and Nakata.

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Takamatsu City (credit: http://americanruruoni.weebly.com/kanonji.html )

One thing that delights and frustrates me is the simple fact that I can’t explain to you what this specific book means. I have ideas about certain allusions or themes, but it would take too long to explain and I highly doubt I could. Whenever I try everything just becomes a jumbled mess in my mind. As with After Dark, there are many things left unsaid and circumstances which ripple in the wake of the main plot. This used to bother me, but I think I’m slowly getting used to it. To me, this is the magic of Murakami and Kafka on the Shore. I love Haruki Murakami’s writing, although at times I think he overuses metaphors a little too much. (But hey, he writes them elegantly af so I think I can forgive him.) There is a mystical feeling I get whenever I read something he’s written even if it’s just a scene describing someone hitchhiking.

The characters all have distinct personalities which makes you fall in love with them and cry for them when the time comes. Kafka is interesting, but I think my favorite character is Nakata. In a way, I want to think Murakami meant for his readers to fall in love with Nakata. I love him not just because he talks to cats, (although that in itself is strangely endearing) but because he is able to let go of time and live in the moment in the most simple and heartwarming of ways.

Kafka on the otherhand, is complicated. He’s broken inside, and haunted by a dark prophecy. Although he does manage to somewhat find his way, he becomes even more lost and confused as he begins to work at a library and fall in love with the older woman who runs it. I won’t spoil too much, but the identity of the woman also plays into part of Kafka’s confusion.

I’m not sure what else I can say about Kafka on the Shore without spoiling it. The story seems simple at first; a runaway and an old man whose life turns upside down, but it becomes much more than that. Fish fall from the sky, cats lead humans to new discoveries, people face sexual awakenings, and a young boy runs through a forest that represents the complexities of his inner psyche. All I can say is you’ll have to read this book to discover what I’m talking about.


Extra Resources

http://modernist-magazines.org/?q=node/808 (A cool page I found that basically maps out the locations described in Kafka on the Shore.)

http://www.harukimurakami.com/q_and_a/questions-for-haruki-murakami-about-kafka-on-the-shore (A link to Murakami’s website where he answers some questions about Kafka on the Shore and his writing.)

Into the Water

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Into the Water by Paula Hawkins


Summary

Like any small town, Beckford has its share of strange residents and even stranger secrets. When Nel Abbott is found dead in the river that intersects the town, her estranged sister Julia returns to look after her teenage daughter and pick up the pieces following her tragic death. However, while some residents claim Nel’s death must have been a suicide given her obsession with the historic part of the river known as the “Drowning Pool,” Jules is not convinced.

Why would Nel throw away everything; her daughter, her forthcoming book about the river, her life, just to become a part of the town’s gory history of drownings? Into the Water jumps between various perspectives of Beckford’s diverse occupants to paint a picture of a town haunted by misconstrued memories and monsters hidden in plain sight.


Memorable Quotes

“To the untrained eye, it might seem you were a fan of bridges: the Golden Gate, the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, the Prince Edward Viaduct. But look again. It’s not about the bridges, it’s not some love of these masterworks of engineering. Look again and you see it’s not just bridges, it’s Beachy Head, Aokigahara Forest, Preikestolen. The places where hopeless people go to end it all, cathedrals of despair,” (page 15).

“Opposite the entrance, images of the Drowning Pool. Over and over and over, from every conceivable angle, every vantage point: pale and icy in winter, the cliff black and stark or sparkling in the summer, an oasis, lush and green, or dull flinty grey with storm clouds overhead, over and over and over. The images blurred into one, a dizzying assault on the eye. I felt as though I were there, in that place, as though I were standing at the top of the cliff, looking down into the water, feeling that terrible thrill, the temptation of oblivion,” (page 15).

“But appearances are deceptive, for this is a deathly place. The water, dark and glassy, hides what lies beneath: weeds to entangle you, to drag you down; jagged rocks to slice through flesh. Above looms the grey slate cliff: a dare, a provocation,” (page 41).

“She insisted there was nothing wrong, that it hadn’t been an argument at all, that it was none of my business anyway. A bravado performance, but her face was streaked with tears. I offered to see her home, but she told me to fuck off,” (47).

“‘So, two women have died in that river this year?’ I said. ‘Two women who knew each other, who were connected…’ The DI said nothing, he didn’t look at me, I wasn’t even sure he was listening.

‘How many have died there? I mean, in total?’

‘Since when?’ he asked, shaking his head again. ‘How far back would you like to go?’

Like I said, fucking weird,” (page 50).

“I wanted to touch you again, to feel your skin. I felt sure I could wake you up, I whispered your name and waited for you to quiver, for your eyes to flick open and follow me around the room,” (page 53).

“Julia stood very still, turning her head towards the window as though she were listening for something. ‘What?’ she asked, but she wasn’t looking at me. It was like she was looking at someone else or at her reflection. ‘What did you say?'” ( page 57).

“Something about that image jarred, made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a while. Shame. The dirty, secret shame of the voyeur, tinged with something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on and didn’t want to,” (page 65).

“I could feel it [the river] pushing against the walls, seeping into the cracks of the brickwork, rising. I could taste it, muddy and dirty in my mouth, and my skin felt damp. Somewhere in the house, I could hear someone laughing, and it sounded just like you,” (page 66).

“Something got missed though, didn’t it? Like one of those con tricks, when you take your eye off the ball for a second and the whole game changes,” (page 97).

“Seriously, how is anyone supposed to keep track of all of those bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head,” (page 129).

A/N** I have a few more quotes I could include, but I didn’t want to risk including any spoilers as this book is still fairly hot off the press.


Thoughts

I’m not exactly sure where to start, but I will say I did have high expectations for this book and I think this alone really contributed to the way I read it. If you saw my post from earlier this year, you know I reviewed Paula Hawkins previous novel The Girl on the Train and loved the psychology that went into the consideration of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. I know in a lot of ways it’s unfair to judge a book by its previously adored sibling, but I ultimately couldn’t help wistfully thinking about Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train as I read Into the Water. 

From the first batch of reactions I saw online I expected this book to be different from TGOTT, but excellent in its own way. I read reviews claiming ITW was similar in style to TGOTT but further developed in both plot and character development. After reading I can say I strongly disagree with this sentiment.

Now let me quickly say (or rather, type) I am not writing this review to bash ITW. There were a lot of things I loved about this book and will mention later, but I can’t honestly tell you that it was my favorite book to read and if nothing else, my reviews are honest. When I started reading I was still in school preparing for finals, so I didn’t have much time to spend on anything other than studying and writing essays. However, there would be brief periods of time, whether on the bus or waiting in line at the cafeteria, I would crack open this book in hopes of being sucked away to the quaint little town of Beckford. The beginning was promising. A small town, a shady cast of characters, a history of mysterious deaths. What’s not to love? But for some reason, the more I read the more disenchanted I became. After some time I pushed ITW aside to finish If We Were Villains. When I had finished IWWV, I begrudgingly turned my attention back to ITW.

My lack of interest in Into the Water was disappointing because I really wanted to love it just as much, or more than The Girl on the Train. (Not to mention I payed $30 for a hardcover copy.) But alas, I guess some things in life are meant to be. So to make what I liked and disliked about this book a bit clearer, I’ve decided to ditch my usual format and compose my thoughts into a bulleted list.

What I Disliked

  • The constant switching between narrators—Although this complaint seems a bit silly given I usually love switching into the headspace of different characters, this book has over fourteen different narrators which can be somewhat disorienting. I got used to it by the end, but in the beginning I would have much preferred learning the plot through one narrator instead of five.
  • The simplicity of the plot— There were a lot of twists scattered throughout the book, but both the writing and the plot felt rushed. I didn’t feel the book was as carefully thought out as it’s predecessor.
  •  The overall resolution— Again, felt a bit rushed and awkward.

What I Liked

  • The use of the river as a character—The imagery of the river was absolutely gorgeous. As I read I could picture myself looking down into the dark water or watching the kids swim in the summertime. Overall, the river was the most interesting character as it’s an omnipresent force that propels the story forward.
  • The plot twists— This somewhat contradicts to what I said about the plot in the dislikes section, but even thought the plot was simple there were still some good plot twists. (I think the simplicity comes from the fact I was able to guess most of them early on.)
  • The cover— Yep, I’m really going there. Judge me as the aesthetic trash I am.
  • Family histories and complexities— I think this is a strong point of the book as the plot focuses on Beckford’s dark history which influences many of the families in the story.
  • Experimentation— Despite disliking the array of narrators, I admired Hawkins’ bravery in experimenting with something a lot of readers may not like, and I hope to follow suit as I embark on my own writing process.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! Did any of you read Into the Water? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts. Did you love it? Hate it? Feel neutral? Are you reading anything else this summer? Let me know in the comments!

-L

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Summary

Rachel’s life is the epitome of mundane. Each day her biggest excursion  is commuting to and from work on the London train. But unlike the other passengers , what thrills Rachel the most about her commute is gazing at the stretch of cozy Victorian homes  mingling along the tracks. Her favorite house, number 23,  is home to a beautiful couple who Rachel nicknames, Jess and Jason. During the few minutes the train stops for construction on the tracks, Rachel watches the couple as they relax out on their terrace and live out the promises of domestic bliss.

Jess and Jason represent everything Rachel has lost; her husband, her home, and most importantly, her sanity. However, watching Jess and Jason also gives Rachel solace that happiness still exists in outside of her own shattered world. That is, until she sees something strange happening on Jess and Jason’s terrace the following day.

Without a warning, Rachel finds herself mixed into a world where her own fantasies blend into hard, cold reality. She becomes a witness, but an unreliable one at that. Struggling against a streak of heavy drinking and violence on her record, Rachel desperately attempts to warn the police of everything she believes she has seen from her small window on the train.

Constantly shifting narration between three of the novel’s main female characters, the reader is provided a glimpse into the web of lies we tell ourselves and the tainted realities we live. Each woman uses her own unique, yet eerily similar experience to illustrate the boundaries the human mind. More than anything, The Girl on the Train, begs one main question:

How far we are willing to go in order to grasp at our own corrupt fantasies?


Memorable Quotes

“There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.” (Rachel POV)

“And I’ve just got to let myself feel the pain, because if I don’t, if I keep numbing it, it’ll never really go away.” (Rachel POV)

“I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable, I’m off-putting in some way. It’s not just that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me, can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.” (Rachel POV)

“Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies, no one to play with, nothing to do. Living like this, the way I’m living at the moment, is harder in the summer when there is so much daylight, so little cover of darkness, when everyone is out and about, being flagrantly, aggressively happy. It’s exhausting, and it makes you feel bad if you’re not joining in.” (Rachel POV)

“It’s ridiculous, when I think about it. How did I find myself here? I wonder where it started, my decline; I wonder at what point I could have halted it. Where did I take the wrong turn?”  (Rachel POV)

“Who’s to say that once I run, I’ll find that isn’t enough? Who’s to say I won’t end up feeling exactly the way I do right now-not safe, but stifled? Maybe I’ll want to run again, and again, and eventually I’ll end up back on those old tracks, because there’s nowhere left to go. Maybe. Maybe not. You have to take the risk, don’t you?” (Megan POV)


Thoughts

First of all, I appreciate how engaging this book was right from the very first page. Even though I love reading, (I am an English major after all) sometimes I have a difficult time picking up a book and sticking with it. But with The Girl on the Train, I never encountered this problem. In fact, I began reading it while lounging around SFO at 3 in the morning! Despite being sleep-deprived and anxious for my trip, I was drawn into the crazy world of seemingly innocent train rides and man-made mayhem.

What I loved most about reading this thriller was experiencing the perspectives of the three very different narrators. Each woman is complicated in her own way; facing different, yet eerily similar, demons. Themes throughout the book range from abuse to motherhood, sexual power/politics to mental illness, and everything in-between. It is not a cheery novel for the slight of heart. In fact, it is a novel where the reader must be willing to get his or her hands dirty and, dare I say it, “take a ride on the wild side.”

Rachel is the main character and particularly unique one at that. She acts as both a passive and active force within the progression of the storyline as she transforms from watcher, into actor. When the reader is first introduced to Rachel, she seems somewhat normal. However, as  the reader becomes more and more acquainted with her stream of consciousness, it becomes very clear that Rachel has a conundrum of deep-rooted, complicated issues.

Rachel’s most notable characteristics are her alcoholism and  her fascination with watching people. So basically, Rachel is a voyeur and an alcoholic. Now, the only issue with describing Rachel as a “voyeur,” is that at first many of her watchful habits seem more innocent than the word suggests. In the beginning of the book, Rachel talks about simply watching the couple from the train because she wants their life. In that train of thought, what she is exhibiting is not voyeurism, but sonderism. However, as the story goes on, it is clear Rachel consistently straddles the line between being a voyeur and experiencing true sonder for the first time.

It begs the questions, what happens when we discover the tangled lives of others? Do we belong in their webs, or does each of us too stuck on our own paths to join another? Or we capable of fighting for the greater good, or are we too selfish to care? From cheating to murder and mayhem, The Girl on the Train, tugs at the very strings of humanity.

 

The Glass Menagerie

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The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams


Summary

“The Glass Menagerie” takes place in St. Louis in the year of 1937. The play follows the  Wingfield family and explores themes such as memory, the past, The American Dream, guilt, and denial. The narrator, Tom Wingfield, lives with his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The play opens with Tom explaining the crucial role his memory has in the way the events of the play are presented. He clarifies that what is shown may not be acute reenactments of the past, but rather hazy scenes dulled and warped by time and personal attachments. Throughout the play Tom frequently breaks the fourth wall in order to justify his actions or explain the situations at hand.

Amanda is a concerned and over-bearing mother who is worried about her children. Despite the fact that both Tom and Laura are adults, Amanda feels compelled to micromanage her children’s lives. Tom is employed at a factory and works to support his mother and unmarried sister. Due to the dull work, Tom lacks excitement in his life and instead lives out his fantasies through adventure movies at the cinema. He dreams of mirroring his father’s actions and leaving his family, however, an ever-present guilt ties him to the lonely St. Louis apartment. Tom knows that if he leaves his mother and sister he will permanently scar them and they will be forced to grapple with life on their own. But Tom simultaneously realizes that if he doesn’t leave he will be chained to a life of obligation, misery, and boredom.

Meanwhile, Laura is a severely introverted and self-deprecating young women. Even with the loud presence of her well-meaning, but exceedingly controlling mother, Laura manages to continually evade life. She is painfully self-conscious because she suffers from Pleurosis, however, later events in the play suggest that perhaps her limp is not as noticeable as she believes and thus, she is self-conscious for no reason at all. This toxic tendency causes Laura to drop out of school only to hide and waste away at home. Laura’s escapism and naive denial is presented in the form of her glass collection, which Amanda refers to as the “glass menagerie.”

While her children struggle with issues of their own, Amanda lives in a world of the past. She spends the majority of her time dancing in youthful memories and recalling the times when her life seemed most promising. She dreams of finding a suitor for Laura and living a successful and happy life. She believes that if she pushes her children hard enough, success is bound to show itself. Unfortunately, her strong ties to past fantasies and unrealistic visions for the future often cloud any chances of success. In many ways, Amanda’s denial is just as strong, or stronger, than Laura’s.

The play deals with individual demons and the ways in which people turn to each other for solace when life becomes unmanageable. The biggest conflict in the play occurs when Amanda forces Tom to find a gentleman caller for Laura. What suddenly appears as a shot at well-deserved happiness suddenly becomes a spinning nightmare that crashes into, and obliterates the Wingfield family.


Memorable Quotes

(NOTE**: The edition I used to read this play does not include line numbers, so I will be using page numbers to cite quotes. This edition was published by New Directions Publishing Company and includes an introduction by Robert Bray.)

Tom: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” (page 4).

Tom: “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic,” (page 5).

Tom: “But since I have a poet’s weakness for symbols, I am using this character [Jim] also as a symbol; he is the long-delayed but always expected something that we live for,” (page 5).

Amanda: “So what are we going to do the rest of our lives? Stay home and watch the parades go by? Amuse ourselves with the glass menagerie, darling? Eternally play those worn-out phonograph records your father left as a painful reminder of him? We won’t have a business career- we’ve given that up because it gave us nervous indigestion!” (page 16).

Tom: “After the fiasco at Rubicam’s Business College, the idea of getting a gentleman caller for Laura began to play a more and more important part in Mother’s calculations. It became an obsession. Like some archetype of the universal unconscious, the image of the gentleman caller haunted our small apartment…” (page 19).

Tom: “Every time you come in yelling that Goddamn ‘Rise and Shine!’  ‘Rise and Shine!’  I say to myself, ‘How lucky dead people are!’ But I get up. I go!'” (page 21).

Tom: “But here there was only hot swing music and liquor, dance halls, bars, and movies, and sex that hung in the gloom like a chandelier and flooded the world with brief, deceptive rainbows… All the world was waiting for bombardments!” (page 39).

Laura: “I was out of school a little while with pleurosis. When I came back you asked me what was the matter. I said I had pleurosis- you thought I said Blue Roses. That’s what you always called me after that!” (page 75).

Jim: “People are not so dreadful when you know them. That’s what you have to remember! And everybody has problems, not just you, but practically everybody has got some problems. You think of yourself as having the only problems, as being the only one who is disappointed. But just look around you and you will see lots of people as disappointed as you are,” (page 76).

Amanda: “That’s right, now that you’ve had us make such fools of ourselves. The effort, the preparations, all the expense! The new floor lamp, the rug, the clothes for Laura! All for what? To entertain some other girl’s fiancé! Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job! Don’t let anything interfere with your selfish pleasure! Just go, go, go-to the movies!” (page 96).


Thoughts

“The Glass Menagerie” is vastly different from Tennessee Williams’ other well-known piece, “A Streetcar Named Desire” for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s quite a bit shorter than Streetcar. Secondly, Menagerie has a lot more concrete symbolism. From Laura’s glass menagerie to the setup of the stage to emulate the presence of memories, “The Glass Menagerie” blatantly reveals the main symbols to the audience. In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the streetcar makes its appearance a couple of times, but the play itself holds a lot more cards in its hands when compared to Menagerie. In Streetcar, Blanche’s age is a recurring theme, but it is not exactly something that is tangible. Lastly, Tom’s consistent narration provides clear insight into the meaning of “The Glass Menagerie,” whereas the themes in “A Streetcar Named Desire”are not as apparent and the key to understanding the play is much more dialogue based. 

I would love to see this play live because the way the stage is arranged plays a huge part in visually demonstrating the powers of memory and the past. I think that watching Tom step out of the scenes to narrate is something that would add to my understanding of the play. Reading “The Glass Menagerie” was an extremely powerful experience by itself, so I can only imagine how powerful it would be to see it live.

My favorite character in the play is Amanda because she is the hardest character to relate to. Perhaps it is because I have never been a mother, but I think it is something more than that. In my edition of the play, Robert Bray writes that the audience will either ” demonize Amanda or regard her as a misguided saint.” However, what Bray fails to note is that instead of simply feeling strongly one way, the audience’s opinion of Amanda may switch back and forth throughout the play.

While reading the play, my feelings for Amanda constantly shifted. At times I was irritated with her because of her overbearing nature. I tired quickly of her fiery attitude and her immediate distaste in her children’s choices. Yet in some scenes I sympathized with Amanda and pictured myself struggling along with her. How disappointing would it be to obsessively dream about a life oversaturated with love only to live the reality of one without? The day Amanda’s husband abandoned her was the day her life stalled and refused to move forward. Amanda sees herself in her children and yearns for Laura to find a companion so to avoid further abandonment. How frustrated would I be if my children refused to take life by the horns and truly live? I figure very. Despite her sweet nature, Laura is terribly frustrating and consistently her own worst enemy. This causes Amanda to spend all of her time spinning fairytale fantasies for Laura’s future, urging her that if she just takes a moment to step outside of herself, the world will shine for them both. Sadly, by the time the play ends and Laura actually does try to live, life has other plans.

Amanda claims to live in the present, but ever since the day of her family’s abandonment, she has been stuck in the past. Ironically, while Amanda is one of the most realistic characters in the play, she is also the most unrealistic. She tells her children to wake up and stop living in memories while she does exactly that. In the tiny apartment the family shares, all that is left are precious memories and pieces of broken glass. The future Amanda sees is one similar to Gatsby’s; a whirlwind of déjà vu moments that are devoid of originality and eerily reflect facets of past events. 

Laura is probably the most pitiful character only because Jim’s observations about her are so spot-on. Her inferiority complex completely stagnates her life. She is at the young age of twenty-four, yet she lives as if she is eighty-four. Like a child, she plays with glass animals and skips school because she is too afraid of judgement. The saddest part is that this is a reality many people face. People miss out on life because they are afraid of judgement and the possibility of failure. We tell ourselves that we are not, but like Laura, something as silly as indigestion can become a hinderance when it comes to living life to the fullest.

Tom is the most relatable character because like many people, he spends his life stuck in a job that he despises. He goes as far as to tell his mother that he envies dead people for God’s sake! If that’s not pitiful, I don’t know what is. But alas, Tom is a man who is unsatisfied. He dreams of scaling the highest mountains and breathing in the salty ocean air. The reality of his life is that he is chained to his dependent mother and sister. And although he works hard each and every day, nothing he does is truly enough for his mother. Despite his efforts, she still manages to guilt him into staying and home and thereby slugging through his soul-sucking life.

Each character in “The Glass Menagerie” paints a picture of the modern-day human condition as a result of societal pressures and industrialization. The family gets by, yet each member of it is trapped in a unique kind of hell. And worst of all, this quiet, never-ending torture is the most realistic kind of pain that people experience.

Another intriguing (and depressing) feature about this play is that apparently it somewhat mirrored Williams’ own life. According to Robert Bray, Williams had a mother and sister he felt entirely responsible for. This responsibility created a saddening weight for Williams along with a bitter taste of dry obligation. In the end, Williams ended up leaving his family in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer.

Overall, this play is extremely thought-provoking. It is a short read, but surprisingly it is a dense piece filled with tangible, yet heavy themes. The honest pain that is illustrated in the play shows that getting by does not mean actually living to the fullest. If anything, this play has inspired me to do one thing; and that is to live.