Jenn Reads: Brave New World

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was our April pick for the Cheshire Cats Classics Book Club.

Before there was The Hunger Games series, Maze Runner series, Legend series there was Brave New World. Huxley was one of the first authors to write a dystopian novel and all others that follow are using him as an example. He did it first and did it best. I marketed this book as the original dystopian novel, because of how popular that genre is right now. And if you want to know where these authors have likely gotten their inspiration, you need to read this book.

A few fast facts about Huxley: he taught French at Eton and George Orwell was one of his students. When Orwell published 1984, he sent a copy to his former teacher, who

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

basically called the book garbage. Huxley died on the same day as C. S. Lewis and JFK, and both of their deaths were overshadowed by the death of the president. And he was a friend to Igor Stravinsky.

Brave New World is a book that is so similar to our own, it is scary how real this book is.

Published in 1932, Brave New World takes place almost 600 years in the future. This is a world where your future is determined at the moment of your conception. Every single child born in this world is born of the test tube and is “raised” to be one of five classes- Alpha, being the best and highest class, or Epsilon, the lowest class. You have no mother, father, and are engineered for specific tasks. You will never grow old, you will never rise above your class, and you will have no apparent free will. Life will be full of pleasurable things however- sex, drugs, mass consumption, and more.

So what makes a dystopian novel different from an utopian novel? Dystopian novels are characterized by a horrible society headed towards oblivion, while utopian novels have an ideal society. Brave New World is a utopian novel on the surface, and to those living in that society, but it’s really dystopian. There is a huge reliance on technology, instant gratification, and lots of propaganda.

Huxley was disturbed at the path the world was taking: the world had been plunged into a great economic depression, fascism and communism were taking hold across Europe, and the Industrial Revolution was continuing to change the landscape of the world. What would happen to us as a people if all of this continued? Huxley feared that we would become a people slaved to technology, conditioned for pleasure and nothing else, and drugged to reality. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like today’s society, you would not be that far off. However, lurking on the fringes were Savage Worlds with people who had lived a much different life.

If you read Brave New World today, there are many scenes that will likely make you think twice. One for me was the scene at what I’ll call the children’s center, where children are being conditioned for certain things. This particular set of children is taught to be afraid of loud noises. What is eerie is the level of manipulation that is going on- these children have no free will. Just like our own, the world of Brave New World is a throw-away society. Something breaks, is old, is damaged, is no longer wanted- throw it away!

Huxley had supposed it would take hundreds of years for the things he wrote about to come true, but if you look hard at the world we live in today, it is a lot like the one he envisioned. Hospice, cloning/DNA/biological engineering, helicopters, and e-books were just a few of the things he prophecized for the future.

Brave New World is easy reading, but do not be fooled by the simplicity of the language or writing. Huxley has a lot to say about how we live our lives with each other, with technology, and for the future.

Rating: 3 bookmarks out of 5

See you in the stacks,



Jenn Reads: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Our mystery book club recently read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

A recently unemployed millennial, Clay, wonders into a curious San Francisco bookstore and leaves finding himself employed. It’s a strange bookstore- long with shelves that seem to reach towards the sky and some odd books. His boss, Mr. Penumbra, has just three rules for Clay, the most important of which is to never look inside the books on what Clay calls the “wayback shelves.”

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Clay works the midnight shift and encounters a few characters, all of whom want books from the “wayback shelves.” It does not take Clay long to peek into those books and open the proverbial can of worms. Along with the help of friends, Clay seeks to solve the puzzle of eternal life.

This is a book for anyone who loves to read, loves bookstores or libraries, or ponders what the future will bring. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book for today, with its clash of technology and traditional ways and methods. We get asked a lot here at the library what we believe the future of print books will be with the advent of e-books. It is difficult to say for sure (no one has a crystal ball), but I would personally like to hope that print books will always be around. After all, people still use brooms even though they have vacuum cleaners!

This book also raises the question: How do will we solve problems – by using computers or our own brains? How reliant will we become on computers? Clay finds throughout the book that technology can be useful, but it also cannot do the critical and complex thinking our minds can accomplish.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an easy to read, engaging, and quirky book. I enjoyed the adventure and the resolution of the puzzle (solved without the help of a computer!). There were times however, when problems were too easily solved with a ready answer or helping hand. So-and-so just happened to have that skill or know a person who could help them. It became a little too predictable. I would not recommend this book to anyone who is not at least familiar with some of the changes in technology – this book is full of 2012 popular jargon and pop culture references, which could be confusing for some.

Rating: 4 bookmarks out of 5

See you in the stacks,

Jenn Reads: The Spymistress

Female espionage in the Civil War is a new area of study, and one I am quite familiar with. My husband, Matthew, lectures frequently on four women who risked all for the sake of their country. It has been an immensely popular program, drawing crowds of more than 80 people on occasion.

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini was my pick for March for the girlfriend’s book club I run outside of the library. I had one sole purpose in selecting this book: to help me research and get ready for my own impression of a female spy in the Civil War. Matt and I have joined a reenacting group and we will be portraying a Pinkerton agent and a female detective. While this is a fictional account, I knew it would be helpful and readable for my friends.

The Spymistress tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Unionist living in Richmond during the time of the American Civil War. While not incredibly common, Unionists lived throughout the Confederacy, and Confederate sympathizers lived throughout the Union. Life was extremely difficult for these people, who had to toe a line so they

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

wouldn’t be arrested, deemed traitors, or become social outcasts. Van Lew, 43 in 1861, lives with her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nieces in their Richmond mansion. She’s outspoken and passionate and feels a deep need to help. But she’s not going to help the Confederacy. She’s going to help the Union.

Van Lew is able to get herself a pass for the prison holding Union soldiers and begins her work. Initially she comes bearing gifts of ginger cakes and food, medicine, and other creature comforts, but soon starts smuggling in and out information. Suspicions arise almost immediately with citizens of Richmond- why is Van Lew only helping Union prisoners? What about Confederate soldiers who have a need? Van Lew deftly uses the Bible and Christian theory, saying that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemy as themselves. And since this is a religious, church-going society, this explanation works. She also hosts a Confederate general and his family for several months in her home, puts on several lavish parties celebrating a particular regiment, and diverts suspicion.

But Van Lew’s best work comes at Libby Prison, where she is able to help Union soldiers escape. She sets up what is essentially a soldier’s underground railroad through a set of safe houses (using quilt blocks, hung outside on clotheslines). Van Lew also set up a chain of spies throughout the Confederate government and military, most notably Mary Bowser (whose real name may not have even been Mary Bowser), a freed slave who worked as a maid for Varina Davis, the first lady of the Confederacy, in the Confederate White House.

Van Lew and her chain of spies are unsung heroes of the Civil War and their stories deserve and need to be told. Van Lew truly did risk everything for her country and lived a very tragic life after the war. Imagine being a Unionist in Richmond after the war.

Chiaverini does an apt job of telling Van Lew’s story with accuracy and respect. Having already known most of Van Lew’s work and life, much in this book was not new for me. For those who are not familiar with Van Lew, I would imagine this being a welcome history and biographical lesson. Her narrative is easy to read and true to Van Lew’s character. This is not a “romantic” book, so those expecting a love story will not find one (Van Lew never married).

However, I was not wowed by this book. Perhaps because I knew too much already about Van Lew the book just fell flat. There was nothing wrong with the characterization, the narrative, or the story itself. Having listened to this book, maybe it was the reader.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

See you in the stacks,


Jenn Reads: Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland

I’m a voracious reader, but my reading skills lately have been the pits. This cold winter weather getting anyone else down in the dumps?

I finally finished a book last night, from the stack of books that have yet to be finished. This particular one, Shinju, by Laura Joh Rowland, was supposed to be done for mystery book club two weeks ago. Ooops.

195979Shinju follows beginning investigating police office (of sorts, his official title is yoriki) Sano Ichiro in 17th century feudal Japan. Sano, a samurai/school teacher by trade, has been given this position by his supporter, a position he is initially unsuited for. He’s not bad at what he does- no, it’s that he’s a little too good at what he does, especially when things should be better left untouched, as his boss requests.

Sano is supposed to write a closing report on a shinju, or a double romantic suicide. Typically shinjus are when two people of different classes fall in love. Knowing their love will never survive and their families will not accept the relationship, the lovers commit suicide. This shinju looks like a suicide, but Sano is hesitant to close this case- and for good reason. Sano will risk everything: his job, his name, his parent’s reputation, and the lives of others, to solve this case.

The back cover of the book has a quote saying how “exotic” it is, and I suppose for some who are not familiar with the time period, it could be. My senior thesis for my history major in college was on a facet of Japanese history, so this particular era was familiar. For me, reading this book brought me back to my studies and I was thrilled to be immersed in 17th century Edo (now Tokyo). This is a world that is much different than ours, and much different than even 17th century Europe. Led by the Tokugawa regime, the government is a military dictatorship with strict rules. Religion, philosophy, and culture, for the new reader, may seem odd or strange. For several of our book clubbers, how Sano struggles throughout the book to justify his need for revenge and thirst to solve the mystery with his filial piety (extreme devotion to one’s elders, especially parents) and what is expected of him, was weird and unnecessary. But this is something a man of his time would have struggled with, and is realistic.

Many commented that the writing style was a bit elementary, but this is Rowland’s first published work, and will develop further in the series. Is this a masterpiece of mystery writing? No, but it was enjoyable for

what it was. More important to me than the mystery was the setting and time period, which I felt Rowland was spot on with.

Rating: 3 of out 5 stars. Enjoyable, but unnecessarily dense in some places where the plot line could have moved faster. Loved the time period and setting.

See you in the stacks,


Jenn Reads: A Tale of Two Cities

In general, I have a rule when it comes to selecting items for our Cheshire Cats Classics Club to read: it has to be something I have never read before.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I like to read something fresh and new along with my clubbers. If I selected something that I’ve read in the past, I likely would not take the time to reread it. Second, the classics I have read are likely those my clubbers have already read, and one of my goals is to introduce

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

them to titles and authors they may have never read before. It’s a formula that has worked for 3 1/2 years.

For our March pick, I broke that rule.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is a book I was *supposed* to have read as a senior in high school. Let’s rewind 10 years: It’s April, senior year. I’m in my AP English class and we’ve already read at least 10 books this year. The end of this high school experience is near, and simply say to Charles Dickens: “Nah.” Totally not in my nature as a student to do this, but alas, I had had enough (sorry Mr. M.). So I Sparknoted it.

When I put together the set for the first quarter in 2014 for the Classics Club, I looked back at Tale and thought I should give it another shot. At least this time, I could truly say that I read it and if I didn’t like it, well, then I didn’t like it.

A Tale of Two Cities, written in 1859, was serialized from April to November of that year. Dickens was a master at serialization and was one of the few authors of his time to make money off his books in his lifetime. In general, the story deals with the French Revolution through the eyes of both British and French citizens. Just about everyone, even though who have never read the book before, can quote you the opening line, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times…” Dickens’ friend and biographer, John Forster, wrote that Tale had the least humor and least remarkable characters of all his novels. Well, at least he was honest.

Writing about the French Revolution during Victorian England was a topic writers used often, and readers were likely sick of it by the time Dickens wrote Tale. Dickens specifically chose the French Revolution for the background of his story because  it fit with the overall message he was trying to convey about social justice in England. His initial inspiration came from (or was stolen from, however you see it) his acting experience in friend and fellow author Wilkie Collin’s play The Frozen Deep, which is about two men, one of whom sacrifices his life so the other can be with the woman they both love. Sound familiar?

There are many parallels to Dickens’ own personal life throughout Tale, including the inspiration for Lucie Manet/Darnay. At the time of writing Tale Dickens had begun an affair with actress Nelly Tiernan, who has a strong resemblance to Lucie. As well, it has been hinted that Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton, who are almost the physically the same person, are Dickens himself.

So what did I think about A Tale of Two Cities? I’m glad I finally slogged through it. In typically Victorian fashion, there is too much time spent on the minutiae, with loooonnnnggg descriptions. In the first half there is little movement or action, and dare I say, no character development. When Lucie and Charles get married, the storyline starts to pick up. However, at that point, we’re almost halfway through the novel.

There was a lot I liked about the book: the end (no spoilers here), the villains (loved to hate them), and the setting. This is a book that takes lots of time to get where it’s going, so it’s something that a reader needs to stay with. Dickens writes with purpose, meaning he is one of those authors who inserts definite themes- he wants you to pick them out.

If you get a chance, check out the new movie which highlights this time in Dickens’ life and his affair with Tiernan called The Invisible Woman.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5 (it’s a hearty 3)

See you in the stacks,