The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Russian Fairy Tale

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden was a beautifully woven, medieval Russian fairy tale full of lush descriptions and dark myths.

I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook instead of reading it, and I’m so glad I did because the narrator, Kathleen Gati, brought this story to life with her Russian accent. Her authentic accent only emerged when she spoke for the characters, otherwise, her tone was smooth and lovely. But the magic and lilting flow of all those Russian names and words were WONDERFUL and made the fairy tale come alive!

Vasilisa Petrovna is a young girl resisting the traditional female roles of the time and learning and coming to terms with the magic around her all while struggling against a loving father determined to do “what’s best for her” and a stepmother who hates her. Her beloved Dunya looks after her as do her many siblings. There’s also Morozko, the frost king, who takes a special interest …

The descriptions are wonderful, such as the traditional homes with their large ovens and the bearded domovoi who live inside them. I wanted to join Vasilisa in the stables, where she spent so much time learning from horses and the Vasilla who lived there. At times the story is told from other perspectives, such as when we travel with the frost demon and learn his nature … not to mention the unsettling encounters with the one-eyed man who is supposed to be hibernating. The reader also has the perspective of the misguided priest, Konstantin Nikonovich, who comes to the village to push Christianity and is blind to other beliefs despite an encounter with the seductive rusalka. The coldness of northern Russian and harsh winter is almost another character in this cast, a living, breathing thing. The nightingale isn’t introduced until much later in the story, but it was one of my favorite non-human characters.

At times, this story reminded me of Cinderella or other traditional fairy tales, but there was enough originality that I didn’t know what was going to happen next or didn’t care if I did know because it was so richly and pleasantly told. The tale was definitely more fable-like in the beginning and then more horror-filled and serious toward the end.

If you like strong female characters, rich foreign settings and a little romance and magic mixed in, The Bear and the Nightingale is a story you’ll devour. I did.

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The Handmaid's Tale Collage

The Handmaid’s Tale: Are You Awake?

When I heard that Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was going to be made into a TV series for Hulu, I decided to reread it, having initially read it years and years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I really didn’t remember it. I decided to purchase the audiobook with Claire Danes narrating, and she did an excellent job.

Originally published in 1985, the novel is set in a dystopian future where a totalitarian government reigns, where women have no power and no freedom. People are sterile from pollution and STDs. The women who are still fertile are forced to become handmaids. They wear red, cover their heads and are assigned to households where their primary and only duty is to become pregnant and have a baby. The handmaids are named after the man of the house. The protagonist narrating this story is named Offred (of-Fred) because that’s who she belongs to, a commander named Fred. Wives wear blue, Marthas (women servants) wear green. Laws are rigid, trust is fleeting and it’s a lonely world for a handmaid.

Handmaids wear red, cover their heads and are assigned to households where their primary duty is to become pregnant and have a baby. The handmaids are named after the man of the house. The protagonist narrating this story is named Offred (of-Fred) because that’s who she belongs to, a commander named Fred. Wives wear blue, Marthas (women servants) wear green. Laws are rigid, class distinction loom large and trust is fleeting. It’s a lonely world for a handmaid.

Offred can remember the time before when she had a job and a child, her own bank account and a car. Now she belongs to the commander with no choices her own, from what she can wear to what she can say or who she can even talk to. It’s terrifying. And she mentions several times how quickly this change occurred, how quickly everyone adjusted to a new way of thinking.

Women aren’t even allowed to make decisions about their own body or allowed TO READ. This is huge. When people start filtering what you can read, telling you what’s true or not true, not letting you decide for yourself, that’s a red flag. I can’t help but compare it to our current political climate, where we have a president telling us alternate facts and calling news fake if it doesn’t agree with him. That’s terrifying too.

This book is more than a piece of well-written fiction. It serves as a warning. We can’t remain ignorant or asleep or complacent. We need to stay awake.

Have you read the book? Do you plan to watch the TV series?

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