Thursday, June 2, 2011

book list: the blind assassin

Because of how busy I've been over the last few years, time allotted to reading for pleasure has dwindled, disappearing almost entirely this past year. Having time to read again feels like coming home; natural, like a sigh of relief. When I was a little girl I was your prototypical bookworm. Curious and quiet, I have always been an introvert, preferring books to most people. When I was in elementary school my siblings and I would go to the Poynette Public Library at least once a week. My mom would look at quilting magazines and my siblings would play in the children's room in the back, and I would explore the young adult and sometimes adult book sections. I read all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, anything that looked interesting, from Nancy Drew to Jude Deveraux. (Ah, romance novels. As a small child I always knew more about sex, about unspeakable things that quivered and pulsated, than my innocent face let on.) The library was never very busy, and it felt as though I had free rein of it sometimes. I'd bring home towering stacks of books, buckling under their weight, and my mom would cluck at me and say, "Are you sure you're going to be able to read all of those?" She knew the answer, and so did I: no. Still, I needed to have options. (Not much has changed. I still have the overdue fines to prove it.)

So while I've never stopped reading, I haven't had much time to dedicate to it. I've finished slim novels that don't take much commitment and popular books, and of course I've enjoyed them. (I refuse to read a book if I'm not enjoying it; life is too short and the amount of incredible books out there is too great.) I haven't exactly dug in, though. Cue this summer!

My first read of the summer was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I was meandering through the aisles at the La Crosse Public Library last week and spotted the Atwood shelf. I had read The Handmaid's Tale and The Tent in high school. Oddly enough, I own a paperback version of The Blind Assassin but it's home in Sun Prairie on a shelf somewhere and I never got around to reading it. Anyway, I was looking for a substantial read that I could sink my teeth into, and at 500+ pages The Blind Assassin was the perfect pick

Long story short, I fell hard for Margaret Atwood, like many before me. Her writing is incredibly descriptive, a treasure trove for a word nerd such as myself. Critics said it before me and they'll say it after me: The Blind Assassin (and her writing in general) is electric, disturbing, verging on the grotesque at times, lovely and brutal. The Blind Assassin is a Booker Prize winner and it has garnered numerous awards, so I was surprised to read this scathing indictment by a critic in the New York Times. Did we read the same book, sir? And how is it that I've never heard of your novels? I really was astonished at his criticism because I was so enraptured by the book, but hey, to each his own. I also came across this article; apparently The Blind Assassin has just been chosen as the first pick of a Twitter-based book club (sponsored by The Atlantic, swoon!). I've always found Twitter kind of annoying, but that almost makes me want to join up!

The format of The Blind Assassin is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel: it is a story within a story within a story. On the first page of the novel we learn in the form of a newspaper clipping that Laura Chase, age 25, has driven off a bridge and died. From then on the story is told by Iris Griffen (nee Chase), Laura's sister, whose health is deteriorating as she writes down the story of their childhood up til Laura's death in 1935. (I'm a history buff, so naturally I appreciated the detailed descriptions of life in the 1920s and 1930s.) Interspersed throughout Iris's narration are excerpts from Laura's novel, called The Blind Assassin, which details the secret meetings of two nameless lovers. During these meetings in seedy motels and dirty apartments, the man tells the woman a science fiction story about a place called Sakiel-Norn, found on the Planet Zycron. In Sakiel-Norn, young noblewomen are pampered until the day they are sacrificed, tongues cut out so that they cannot scream when their throats are slit. Young boys make carpets til they go blind, then become hired assassins. The details of Sakiel-Norn read like a science-fictionized version of the gory, early fairy tales. (Awesome.) Atwood's characterization is strong, and as a reader we are kept on edge throughout the novel, knowing that there are details being kept from us, things we don't yet know. The ending is worth the investment. I just finished it and I'm pretty much already ready to reread it! 

I know this book sounds absolutely flummoxing, and most of that is due to my inability to successfully convey the multilayered plot of The Blind Assassin. I encourage you to read it for yourself; it's a modern classic, and it has spurred me to take on reading the entire Atwood oeuvre this June. This book was unputdownable.

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