Bob Tarte: Enslaved by Ducks (review)

EnslavedbyDucks‘In days gone by, if anyone had asked me if I owned any pets, I could readily rattle off their names. To answer the same question now, I would have to excuse myself, find a pen and sheet of paper, sit by myself for several minutes, and try to sort the problem out.’ (p. 249)

So I think I have a lot of animals. Or, rather, my boyfriend thinks I have a lot of animals. I don’t think so. Does one dog, one hamster, three bunnies (with one more moving in soon) count as a lot? Even if I had considered it a lot, I wouldn’t any more after reading this book. Bob Tarte and his wife have a lot of animals and a lot of animals moving in and out of their home. At one count they have three rabbits, two cats, three parakeets, a dove, two parrots, three turkeys, two geese, a canary and nine ducks. Now that is a lot of animals!
So what this is, is an account of the chaos that ensures when you keep on adding animals to your household. Animals who almost all have their own needs and wants and are very vocal about getting them met. So vocal in fact that for some periods, Tarte’s wife eat her lunch outside in the car to get away from the birds demanding to taste.
Tarte is a very funny writer. I don’t know much about birds but I can easily visualize the troubles they got from Binky the bunny. As I always say, bunnies are terrorists and escape artists and Binky is just another proof of this. I loved reading about Binky!
It’s also about a man from the city finding a purpose in his life through these animals. Bob is struggling with depression and slowly realizing, that the structure needed to care for these animals as well as the love he starts to feel for them, is actually helping him overcome his disease.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. Only issue I had with it was, that they kept adding animals to the household without any knowledge about them. It was a bit discouraging to read about them acquiring animals and having these die in their care. However, as I read one, they became more knowledgeable and it clearly shines through that they love all their animals and care for them to the best of their ability. Still, I was sometimes a bit put off by smaller things – like them not going to the vet immediately when something happens to one of their animals or going to bed, leaving one of their birds to die on its own in the basement.
Still, it is clear that they care about the animals and it is very entertaining to hear about their inabilities to construct pens or their attempts to eat a quiet dinner while simultaneously catering to a host of birds or trying to get a bunny to leave it’s chosen hiding place.
It is a light cozy read for the animal lover and as such, it’s very enjoyable – even if it has as many characters as your average Russian novel.

First lines: I should have known I was doomed to write a book about our animals. Since they had taken over just about everything else in my life, it was only a matter of time before they commandeered my word processor, too.

  • Title:  Enslaved by Ducks
  • Author: Bob Tarte
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • Year: 2003
  • Pages: 308 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy #3) (review)

13_10_atwood_book_club_eventIf you look at a basic hierarchy of needs, you’ll find things like food and water at the bottom with safety on the next level. In some ways, this is what the two first books in the MaddAddam trilogy was about. The world fell apart and we followed a few people and saw them carve out a way to survive, securing their basic needs. But in this third book, they are beginning to be able to strive for bigger and better things like beginning to create a foundation for a way to live together, the beginnings of a society for both Crakers and plain old-fashioned humans.
Granted, the world is not safe. Three men who have served time in the Painball tournament, a tournament where murderers are pitted against each other and the survivors are released, are doing what they can to satisfy their needs, no matter how depraved.
These men are a constant threat for our settlers in this book. Other than that, this is mostly the book of Toby and Zeb. The Crakers have added Zeb to their pantheon of gods and this means that Toby has an excuse to get Zeb to tell her his life story and we get to listen in on this as well which fills out even more of the puzzle we have been working on fitting together throughout the first two books.
What I absolutely loved in this book, was, whenever it was story time for the Crakers. Each evening, preferably, they want a new story and these stories are part of their mythology, their way of understanding the world. Whoever tells the story has to put on Jimmy-the-Snowman’s red cap, eat the fish (or frog) brought by the Crakers and then tell them a story about Crake, Oryx, Zeb – or maybe Fuck, the special helper you call whenever you are in trouble. I absolutely adored reading these stories and how the story teller, Toby on most occasions, are really struggling to keep the Crakers from breaking out singing whenever the name Crake is mentioned and is really trying to explain the Crakers what’s going on as well as tell them stories from the past.
At later points, a young Craker named Blackbeard starts telling the stories and Atwood does a masterful job of changing the voice of the story teller while at the same time letting some things be a stable of the story telling. Both Jimmy and Toby has repeatedly been asking the Crakers to stop singing when they tell stories, and of course when Blackbeard is telling a story, he says the same things even though he too is a Craker and used to the singing.
I also really loved the Pigoons, the Pig Ones. After having seen animals reduced to what was needed to create meat in the first book, it is amazing to see these half pigs/half humans express themselves, care for each other and work together with the humans to eliminate a threat.
The ending of this book was sad, yet hopeful. I am torn between thinking that the ending was a very brave move on Atwood’s side and the only way this trilogy could possibly end. Either way it was a very fitting end to an amazing trilogy. A lot of things were explained but not quite everything. I’m still trying to piece together why Crake did what he did to Oryx and also, the importance of this girl who plays a somewhat small role but is still important enough to be in the title of the first book and be the mother of all animals in the Craker mythology.
Whereas the focus in the first two books was on survival and how they ended up in this dystopic world, this book is more about living. This means building relationships, making long-term solutions for their lives as well as teaching the Crakers things. Not only teaching them their history through story telling but also teaching writing and the importance of caring about books. What Toby learns Blackbeard is similar to the practice in Medieval cloisters where the monks copied the books when they read it so the words were spread. Particularly the Bible, of course.
It is interesting how Crake tried to remove all what we normally consider human qualities from the Crakers and yet, some parts were impossible to remove if they were to have anything resembling a working mind. He couldn’t do away with the singing – they became mindless bag of bones if he did. So what this book also is, is a comment on what makes us humans. The Crakers are humans too and they need to have both their singing and their stories, their faith, to exist. In a time where we often focus more on making money and on productivity than on almost anything else and where the world is being destroyed, it is necessary that we are reminded of what makes us humans and not just shells of flesh. We need the arts, the humanities, philosophy – we need all that to be the best we can be.

‘If a nation’s culture survives, so too does the nation.’
Jan Mládek

First lines: In the beginning, you lived inside the Egg. That is where Crake made you. Yes, good, kind Crake. Please stop singing or I can’t go on with the story.

  • Title:  MaddAddam
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2013
  • Pages: 394 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy) (review)

9780349004075‘According to Adam One, the Fall of Man was multidimensional. The ancestral primates fell out of the trees; then they fell from vegetarianism into meat-eating. Then they fell from instinct into reason, and thus into technology; from simple signals into complex grammar, and thus into humanity: from firelessness into fire, and thence into weaponry; and from seasonal mating into an incessant sexual twitching. Then they fell from a joyous life in the moment into the anxious contemplation of the vanished past and the distant future.’ (p. 224)
What exactly is going on? Why am I reading about someone named Toby? And some stripper named Ren? Supposedly this is the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy, so where is Snowman, Oryx and Crake?
Well, yeah, I guess I know where Oryx and Crake are and why they are not exactly playing first fiddle in this book. But we kind of left Snowman in a situation which could turn both good and bad in the first book of the trilogy, Oryx & Crake, so why are we not reading about him?
Oh well, I guess both Toby and Ren are kind of interesting and … what’s this? There’s some connections between them – and to Snowman aka Jimmy. And to Crake. Interesting.
So this is the story of Toby and Ren. Ren is working as a stripper/hooker at Scales and Tails while Toby is working at a spa. Both are lucky and survives the plague we heard about in the first book, the plague that Crake caused. Both have a past as God’s Gardeners, a sort of vegetarian eco-sect who grows it’s own vegetables and lives on a roof top, being careful not to attract too much attention to themselves.
These Adams and Eves are not your everyday mad cultist but rather an extremely intelligent bunch of scientists. Their teachings are actually really interesting. Each day has it’s own saint, various people they pay tribute to. People who worked for the environment, for the preservation of species, for clean air. Each part of the books begin with a sermon by Adam One as well as a song from the gardeners’ oral hymnbook.
And their biggest fear is the waterless flood aka the plague Crake unleashed.
Not only did I think it was really interesting to hear about the mythology put together by Adam One and the gardeners, I was again fascinated by Margaret Atwood’s skills as a writer. In this trilogy, she is amazing at just slowly revealing information a little at a time and jumping back and forth in time. She did it in the first book and she does it again in this one. Add to this, that the characters we had gotten so interested in in the first book, are not a huge presence in this one. But even though this is so, she manages to give us a lot of information about Crake and Snowman which explains a lot about the events in the first book as she lets us look at them through the eyes of other characters. After spending the entire first book seing the world through Jimmy’s eyes, it is so fascinating to now see this world as well as Jimmy through the eyes of someone else. And this book is told solely from female view points in contrast to the male perspective in the first book. It is in fact a parallel story, telling the same events but filling in some blanks because it’s told by other characters who have new information for us that helps us understand what exactly is going on.
Add to this a whole new set of interesting characters in this one. Gardeners like Zeb, Pilar, Amanda and of course Adam One and our two main characters Toby and Ren as well as real creepy guys like Blanco, the guy Toby is rescued from by the Gardeners. And of course the Crakers. Zeb in particular is interesting as he is second in command but doesn’t really seem like a gardener.
I absolutely loved this book. I think Atwood has written an extremely clever trilogy which manages to be both a timely comment on the way we choose to live now and the way we abuse our world as well as being extremely clever books that hook you right in and keep your interest. I can’t wait to read the third novel and finally find out exactly what MaddAddam is and get the final pieces to the puzzle. I have a feeling that this series will only improve with each reread and I’m diving right in to MaddAddam.

First lines: In the early morning Toby climbs up to the rooftop to watch the sunrise. She uses a mop handle for balance: the elevator stopped working some time ago and the back stairs are slick with damp, and if she slips and topples there won’t be anyone to pick her up.

  • Title:  The Year of the Flood
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2010
  • Pages: 518 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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February 2014 – monthly update

So February has been a frustrating month. It seems I just couldn’t find time to read all that much. I have been working a lot all month and have just been too tired. In January, I read whenever I could find time and read through 6 books and lots of pages. This month I have unfortunately prioritized watching sucky tv more. I think it is sometimes easier to just vegetate in front of the tv when you are overworked and stressed out instead of picking up a book even though you know that in the end, you will enjoy the book more.
NightCircus.final_.2But still, I did read 5 books this month and I have still read some amazing good books this month. The first one was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus which I had postponed reading but absolutely loved when I finally got around to it. The setting in this book was breathtaking and so lovely and I was just blown away by it. An entire black and white circus suddenly appearing out of nowhere and just spellbinding it’s audience. I also really liked the story in this book and the characters and I am really looking forward to Erin Morgenstern’s next novel.
possession-by-a-s-byatt[1]My other favorite novel this month was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I watched her give a lecture back in 2005 and I was so impressed by her. So impressed that I actually got scared. She is just so clever and knowledgable and I have been really scared that I wasn’t able to get her books. But then I read her The Children’s Book a while ago and really liked it and I watched the movie version of Possession and decided to put the book on my list of reading goals for this year. And then I actually read it. And loved it. It’s a wonderful intelligent book and a beautiful love story. I was so engrossed by the romance of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash. Talk about star-crossed lovers! Add to this that it is a literary mystery with beautiful writing. This is going to be one of my favorite novels of the year – and I can’t wait to reread it. I think it will be one of my favorite novels of all time. It is so intelligent that it can stand to be reread over and over.
It seems that I should learn from this experience not to postpone novels that I really want to read because I’m scared of not being able to get them or scared they are not able to live up to my expectations. I should just read whatever I want when I want it. I might have to work a bit on this before I accomplish doing so!
oryx-and-crakeI also began the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. I will not say too much about this novel or this series here before I’ve read the entire trilogy but I will say that Oryx & Crake is quite an accomplishment and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am. I am reading the second part of this trilogy right now, The Year of the Flood, and I’m just getting more and more impressed. This is clever writing!
My complete list of novels read in February look like this:

  1. Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
  2. Joyce Carol Oates: Carthage
  3. Susan Hill: Howard’s End is on the Landing
  4. A.S. Byatt: Possession
  5. Margaret Atwood. Oryx & Crake

Last year I read about 50 pages a day. This year, I wanted to do better. My goal was 100 pages a day. Sadly, February has been the month where it dropped. Not only below 100 but actually below 90 (although I ended the month just above 90 pages a day). I know it’s silly getting caught up in numbers and that the important thing is the reading experience. I know I should care more about reading amazing books and taking the time to really enjoy them than care about the amount of books I read. Still, I can’t help it. I want to read many books and therefore I want to read a lot of pages each day. And I just haven’t read all that many pages in February and it depresses me like hell, especially since I could have read so much more if I had just kept on prioritizing reading above other relaxing pastimes.
I’m actually a bit amused that I feel this way because five books in a month is excellent given my current schedule. I think I will have to think quite a bit about whether this focusing on pages a day is actually benefitting me or rather stressing me out. Five books is good – especially since these weren’t short books and they were really good books.

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Margaret Atwood: Oryx & Crake (The MaddAddam Trilogy #1) (review)

oryx-and-crakeThe world as we know it, is falling apart. We have almost used all the oil, the poles are melting, animals are dying, there’s not enough food to feed everyone – and yet it seems we don’t really care enough to do something about it.
For Snowman, the time where it was possible to do something, has long passed. And even though it was tried to solve the world’s problems, well, he’s the last of his kind, living on his own, sleeping in a tree and taking care of the Crakers.
But why are Snowman living alone and how can he be the last of his kind when he’s human, for gods sake?! Well, that’s not something Atwood just reveals to us. Slowly, slowly, she reveals what has been going on and why Snowman has ended up this way. And who the Crakers are.
By jumping back and forth between Snowman’s childhood and his current life, we start to discover what has been going on. As a child, Snowman was a normal boy named Jimmy. He spend a lot of time with best friend Crake, playing computer games, watching wars, executions and porn – all the things of normal boyhood. But even though they live in one of the compounds, one of the safe places, not everything is as it should be. For starters, Crake is living with his mother and her new husband after his father had an accident and fell to his death. But maybe it wasn’t an accident. And why has Jimmy’s mother quit her job and is just staying home, doing nothing? That is, until she disappears and take Jimmy’s pet animal with him?
There’s no question that Crake is the smart one of the two. But just how smart he is, well, that actually shocked me. Or, rather, it shocked me what he chose to do with all his intelligence. There are definitely a couple of twists in this one, that I didn’t see coming.
Before starting this, I knew that Margaret Atwood is an excellent author. I have read and reread Alias Grace and I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale – and I’ve enjoyed them both so much. Excellent, excellent books. And this is another one. Atwood is quickly closing in on the elusive list of my favorite authors. Only five authors on it so far but Atwood is definitely in the running.
And not just because this book was really good. Also because she tackles some big issues, she does it in an fascinating way and she’s just such a clever author. She reveals the true scope of things so very slowly in this book. You are constantly left guessing, she’s peeling away layer after layer until finally everything is revealed and you are left completely speechless and having to read that one key scene over and over to realize that yes, that’s what happened and yes, she did do that.
This is definitely one scary book. When looking over my notes, I see a lot of questions at first and then it goes quickly through bafflement and bewilderment to holy cow territory and just poor what the fuck. When she finally explains what the Crakers are and explains the Paradice Project, I was just floored. I couldn’t believe that anybody could or would take science this far – yet I totally buy into the premise of the book and that there are scientists who would do things like this if they had the skills. This following scene gave me the creeps – and it actually got worse from there: What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.
“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken arts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”
“But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. He grasped the concept /…/ but this thing was going to far. At least the pigoons of his childhood hadn’t lacked heads.
“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
“This is horrible,” said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.
“Picture the sea-anemone body plan,” said Crake. “That helps.”
“But what’s it thinking?” said Jimmy.
The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they’d removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth.
(p. 237-238).
Is that nasty or what? Then imagine what they are able to do with humans…
This is a good book. It’s a clever book. It’s a book that hooks you in while you are slowly learning the lengths humans are willing to go to to survive. And if any one man stands a chance of stopping it. And who exactly that man might be.

First lines: Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still sleep.

  • Title:  Oryx & Crake
  • Author: Margaret Atwood
  • Publisher: Virago
  • Year: 2003
  • Pages: 436 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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A. S. Byatt: Possession (review)

possession-by-a-s-byatt[1]

‘She held his time, she contained his past and his future, both now cramped together, with such ferocity and such gentleness /…/’. (p. 287)

It seems that my go-to theme when talking about A.S. Byatt is that I’m afraid that she is so much more clever and well-read than me that I will not be able to understand her books. I hope this will change now when I’ve not only read two of her books, one of these being Possession, her most well-known work which also won the 1990 Booker Prize – but actually really liked them both.
And there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about Possession. A young literary scholar, Roland Michell, discovers two hidden and unfinished love letters by the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. But there’s something different about these poems. They have a completely other feel to them than what Ash normally wrote and so, Roland is intrigued. He snatches the poems from London Library and starts investigating who they were written to.
This turns into quite the literary mystery hunt – during which he is joined by the Christabel LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey when it turns out that the poems were written to Christabel. But no one knew that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash had a relationship – especially since Randolph Ash were (happily) married. As Roland and Maud dig deeper, they discover a beautiful, albeit very tragic, love story about two people who supplemented each other perfectly and fell in love through letters, yet could never be together.
Of course, Christabel and Randolph’s love story is somewhat paralleled by the contemporary story of Roland and Maud although the stories are vastly different even though Roland and Maud do their best to follow in the footsteps of Christabel and Randolph.
To make this novel even more impressive, Byatt has written the letters between Randolph and Christabel as well poems written by both poets. These poems and letters are convincing and have no contemporary feel to them. They felt so real, in fact, that I had to google to make sure that Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte were not in fact real people. It is such a convincing story that Byatt has written.
Now, of course no story is complete without a villain and in this book, it is a American Randolph Ash scholar who will stop at absolutely nothing to get what he wants. He wants everything that Ash ever owned to be in his or his university’s possession – and he does whatever it takes to achieve that. Academic life is definitely not always boring and predictable!
A character not to be forgotten in this novel, is Ellen Ash, Randolph Ash’s wife - although it seems easy to do, given you have two couples and two love stories, and she’s not a part in either. She shows herself fully towards the end and is just such a fascinating person, especially when we see what lengths she was willing to go to to protect her husband’s heritage and to protect him.
I absolutely loved this book. I was intrigued from beginning to end and just wanted to know what had happened between these two poets, what happened with their letters and why Christabel’s female roommate (or lesbian lover) committed suicide.
Add to this all the interesting thoughts on scholarship, especially the kind of scholarship that centers on just one person. What happens with a scholar who spends his entire life and career focused on the words and thoughts of one famous person? Does he just becomes a filter through which we experience another man’s life? Does his life loose all intrinsic worth and only gain importance through his scholarship? Does he become possessed by the poet in some ways, like Byatt at one point talks about Ash being possessed by Christabel as like a deamon? It’s fascinating to ponder – also the length scholars are willing to go to gain that piece of new knowledge that will not only ensure their career for life but also, maybe even more importantly, satisfy their curiosity.
This is definitely one of those books that shows you how good literature can be. Interesting and fascinating at the same time as it’s clever and intellectual. Extremely well-written and dealing with deep themes like feminism, Victorian poetry, academic scholarship, love. It was an absolute joy to read and I can only – again – regret that I didn’t read this one sooner. It is a book I can see myself rereading many times and because of the depths of it, enjoy it more and more with each reread.

First lines: The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

  • Title: Possession
  • Author: A. S. Byatt
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Year: 1991
  • Pages: 511 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

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