Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell – Book

From a Google Image Search – slate.com

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell’s new book, ‘hooked’ into memories of things I learned to love long ago that have stayed with me all these years. I was just out of college in the years Mitchell sets his band, called Utopia Avenue, down in. If you want to invent a rock band there is not a better era than that musical era that contained so many great bands and solo artists. After all that was the age of Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell and Graham Nash, the Grateful Dead, Cream, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. I sat in summer-green parks and watched children chase bubbles and whiled the afternoons away listening to great music. I saw the Moody Blues in concert. I went to Woodstock. I cannot help enjoying Mitchell’s story.

He gives us great characters too. Dean Moss is the first band member we meet and he is having a very bad day. He is not playing in a band at the moment and a pick pocket rips off his rent money. He gets evicted by his cruel landlady. He left his last band, Battleship Potemkin, a poorly designed band that tried to rock out to some Communist ideology. He asks at the coffee shop where he now works if he can have an advance and he loses his job. All the while the juke box in the diner plays an ironic soundtrack. But then the day ends with an astounding piece of luck. Dean runs into Levon Frankland who has heard Dean play his bass guitar. Frankland wants to put a band together with the best musicians he has seen at the London clubs.

We meet Elf, a girl folk singer with a user boyfriend, and he isn’t using drugs, he is using Elf, who has talent and character. Griff plays a harmonica and he is also the drummer. Jason sings and plays guitar. Elf plays guitar, piano, any keyboard instrument; she writes great songs and is a singer with some recording chops already. Dean sings and writes songs and so does Jason so this band would have a deep bench. They are lucky that Levon is the manager who found them because he is honest, and the music scene was and is loaded with managers who are happy to rip-off their artists.

David Mitchell usually writes dense books that play with time and offer up symbolic doses of social commentary; books that are sometimes like a mind puzzle. This book worked a bit differently. It plays with time in the sense that Mitchell sees parallels between 2018 and 1968. If you were around in both of these times, which Mitchell was not, but I was, the time travel happens inside my mind, inspired by Mitchell’s story. The people he mentions as contemporaries of Utopia Avenue are the same people I listen to on my stereo today. Yes I still have a stereo, but it only plays CD’s. So the reverberations of this book in my own life are trippy enough, but that is an accidental effect since I don’t think the book was aimed at only old hippies. It’s difficult for me to perceive, though, how it affects a younger reader. I say take a chance. Go for it. If you’re alive, you know rock bands.

Mitchell also does that ‘horology’ thing he does. Jason’s last name is de Zoet. Jason hangs on to sanity by a thread, via a drug prescribed for him and a strange encounter on a beach. Is Knock-Knock real? Is knock-knock a joke. Is Jason schizophrenic? Jason is able to forget the battle in his head when he’s on stage but when he is not performing he keeps expecting the quarantined Knock-Knock to return at any moment. He has seen ‘Knock-Knock’ and he takes the form of an imperious oriental figure who wants Jason dead. If you have read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet then you see the connection right away. If you didn’t read it, just go with the flow. All will be explained and it will be sufficiently freaky.

When the band gets famous enough, they are offered performances in America. Mitchell is able to fit in some observations about America through the eyes of Brits who have some delusions about the USA.

“I’ve never associated America with violence,” says Elf.

“Violence is on every page of our history.” Max mops up his gazpacho soup with a crust. “Brave settlers massacring Indians. Some days we’d cheat them with worthless treaties, but mostly it was massacres. Slavery. Work for me for nothing till the day you die, or I’ll kill you now. The Civil War. We industrialized violence. We mass produced it, years before Ford. Years before the trenches of Flanders. Gettysburg! Fifty thousand deaths in a single day. The Klan. Lynchings. The Frontier. Hiroshima. The Teamsters. War! We need war like the French need cheese.” Page 424

So not quite as abstract as some of Mitchell’s other books but packed with enough material for several readings. I don’t know why he chose a band as his vehicle but it worked for me. It’s an ‘Is it real, or is it Memorex’ moment. You may not be old enough for that reference either. He still sits firmly on my ‘great writer’ list.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King – Book

From a Google Image Search – Entertainment Weekly

Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.

We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture. 

Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.

I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you. 

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner – Book

Cover of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner from KCRW.jpg

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner covers a lot of ground, both culturally and politically. It is one of those novels that jumps around in time, which at first makes it seem disjointed and a bit obscure. Once we manage to focus on the characters and let them guide us through the social commentary there is great depth to the content, which is made more effective by the nonlinear presentation. If you lived through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, if you smoked pot or dropped acid, if you got caught up in the movement those psychotropic substances engendered of self-analysis, of getting rid of personal baggage, and eventually professional analysis, then you will get Lerner’s book. Perhaps you remember therapies like Reiki, Feldenkrais, Transactional analysis – “I’m OK, You’re OK, and Primal Scream therapy.

The Topeka School is a foundation that applies Freudian and other psychological methodologies to treat adolescents who stray from acceptable societal norms, or whose behaviors will short circuit future success. Even the therapists often end up analyzing each other. Kansas is an odd location for a foundation full of political liberals. The children of the resident therapists attend a school known as Bright Circle (sounds a bit cultish but is actually more a combination of hippie philosophy and southern conservatism – a mix that already builds in an element of schizophrenia). Jane is the main therapist character we follow, although she is not the key figure at the Foundation; that is the mythic Klaus. Jane is married to Jonathan and her son is Adam. Adam is relatively well-adjusted, has plenty of friends and fits in well enough that he can also buck the culture by being a debate nerd. He has a few setbacks that require parental and psychological intervention, but nothing major. What bothers his mother the most is a culture of toxic male behavior which is a rite of passage for young men in the South, even more so than in other corners of American culture. Darren is another character involved with the Foundations whose behaviors are less well adapted to the cultural experiences of schooling in America and whose trajectory contrasts with that of Adam.

The novel is actually taking place in the days of the Trump administration, although given the many flashbacks, the commentary on right-wing politics and Trumpian behavior, however insightful, is intermittent. Obviously Trump is not responsible for the manly code in Topeka that requires physical violence when another male disrespects you in any way, but Trump’s own behaviors work against therapeutic attempts to change male behavior and to help men evolve into humans who handle personal interactions in less pugilistic ways. The Foundation and the Topeka School is a clever convention that allows the author and the reader to consider modern male behavior and the reasons we are bothered by the Trump administration and to revisit therapeutic models that have been taken to the edge of obsolescence by modern pharmaceuticals. Interestingly enough in The Topeka School the Foundation leaves Kansas and moves to Texas. Why the school chooses to embed itself in places where American culture is such a mismatch to the culture of the Foundation is left for us to decide. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner was a trip, a trip worth taking.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Book

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel – NPR

The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.

This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He also helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.

Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies. He holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.

Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with a injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out. 

At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.

These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:

“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.” 

And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.

The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith – Book

From a Google Image Search – Your Botswana

Alexander McCall Smith has written over 20 books in his series about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and each one is like a perfect little piece of Mma Potokwane’s fruit cake and a refreshing cup of tea. I am reading this particular book in the time of the novel coronavirus when a bit of Mma Romatswe’s Botswana wisdom and her solid home-grown values are a perfect antidote to the fears of contagion and social isolation. 

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is one of the faux families we create sometimes when we are in close contact with the same people every day, in this case Mma’s employees, and because her office is in the same building as her husband, Rra J.L.B. Matekoni’s, mechanic business, this small work-family includes her husband’s employees.

The cases that Mma Romatswe and Makutsi take on are often small family matters such as infidelity or money matters. But this time there is a matter that is somewhat more serious. Some developers want to build a hotel over what was a graveyard. Although Precious Romatswe has no desire to run for the empty seat on the Gabarone council, her strong feeling for traditional Botswana customs, and a lot of pressure from her work family sees her signing the application and running for office. 

A customer at Tlokweng Motors also reveals that he was a victim in a hit and run accident in a smaller Botswana village. And Charlie, a handsome young man who turns out to be a fairly hopeless mechanic, but a somewhat lucky assistant detective finds Queenie-Queenie, who seems to be the girl of his dreams. These homey stories, and more, are surprisingly absorbing and I find that these characters have become a kind of faux family to me. If you crave a little sincerity and kindness in your day you will find it in The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith. I hope the real people of Botswana have not been affected very deeply by the COVID19 virus.

Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – Book

From a Google Image Search – the absolute.com

Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s books are full of detail and paint a picture of life in 1500’s England. Her prose is exceptional and her descriptions are so well done that the book plays like a movie in your head. 

Apparently Cromwell has not been the subject of in-depth research. Mantel brings him to life using the known to extrapolate about the unknown. She fleshes the man out. She uses fact and imagination to make him a living contemporary of Henry VIII.  In this second book, we begin to understand why Cromwell was a formidable figure. Cromwell, in Wolf Hall, had been loyal to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Great men trained up younger men with promise, and Wolsey saw much promise in Cromwell. When Henry VIII wanted to set aside his first wife Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn, the Catholic Church stood in the way. Cardinal Wolsey, wealthy, learned, and powerful, represented the Catholic Church in England. 

Wolsey could not approve the King’s divorce. His property was seized and he lost all his comforts, was forced to live in rougher circumstances than his advanced age could tolerate, and he died of illness before he could be executed. Cromwell happened upon a play that mocked the fall of Wolsey. This masque was described in Wolf Hall, Book 1. Cromwell happens to look behind a screen as the players shed their disguises. He makes a mental note of who is the left front paw, the right front paw, the left rear paw, and the right rear paw of the beast in the play.

In Bringing Up the Bodies, Cromwell gets his revenge. He also reveals himself as so much more than the intelligent businessman and mentor of his own domain and the friend and ally of Henry, the King. We see his dark side. Previously we understood people’s envy and incredulity that this commoner could rise so high; now we understand how Cromwell becomes an object of fear. He becomes a man to deal with cautiously. Henry is now convinced that he needs to be free of Ann Boleyn so he can marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell makes it so in horrifying fashion. I was liking Cromwell. However, he is slipping in my regard, even though I still admire his many talents.

Cromwell and the King have already found a way to make the King the head of the church of England. Now they are beginning to dismantle the holdings of the Catholic Church and transfer the wealth to the King. Cromwell is ‘way out over his skis.’ Will he fall or remain upright? People near the King are falling like flies. Cromwell might be making too many enemies. I could look up the outcome online but I want to wait and let Mantel take me there.  I’m looking forward to Book 3.

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment – Book

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment – NPR

In Jill Ciment’s new book, The Body in Question, Ciment turns us into judges. We are presented with at least 3, maybe 4 situations that we can’t help but judge. The first involves a court case. Hannah and Graham are at the court house because they have been called for jury duty. Hannah is 52 years old, a former photographer for Rolling Stone. Hannah got tired of rock stars and she became aware of the grief one animal feels when a related animal dies or suffers. She became quite famous for photographing the faces of these sad animals. Graham is a 42 year old anatomy professor. They begin to chat as they wait to be called for questioning. They speak about things we would speak about; how they plan to get out of having to sit on an actual jury, but in the end, they are both chosen to serve on the jury of a murder trial. 

This is the first and most important thing we can’t help but pass judgement on. A young, rich, white girl has been charged with murdering her brother, a toddler. As the details of the case come out we find that a definitive version of what actually happened is not on offer. There are as many questions as answers. A fire happened but it is unclear who set the fire. The baby was trapped and the young lady, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend all said they could not rescue him. We learn that the accused sister has what is perhaps a mild autism. Each child’s testimony seems to contradict the other’s. The trial ends and the jurists are sent to deliberate. When they don’t reach a decision by nightfall they are sent to an Econo Lodge after eating at an Outback Steak House. Jury duty is hardly luxurious. They are cautioned not to speak about the trial.

Hannah is a married woman. She married a man 30 years older than she is and they have had a nice marriage, but he is getting frail and is worried that he is disappointing her. Hannah, jurist C-2 and Graham, jurist F-17 have been flirting with each other. More judgement arises on our part. Will their flirtation turn sexual? Will it affect their ability to make a fair decision about the trial? Will they be able to keep any intimate activities secret? What if Hannah’s newly insecure husband learns about their flirtation? When the jury ends up being sequestered for more than one week, as we follow them to the jury room, to the hotel, to a conjugal weekend visit we can’t help but become more and more judgmental. We worry that there will be a mistrial and the child will have to be retried. We wonder if it might be better if there were a second trial. We begin to wonder if these two jurors will still be interested in each other when the trial ends. We wonder if this child got justice? Lots of judging going on and the reader is the real jury in this new twist on a courtroom tale.

The Rise of Magicks by Nora Roberts – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

Although I found fault with the adolescent atmospherics in the second book in Nora Roberts most recent trilogy which began with Year One and continued with Of Blood and Bone, I decided that I enjoyed the first two books enough to want to read The Rise of Magicks, the last volume in the trilogy. (It could just be that, like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, I am unable to leave something unfinished.) I liked this last volume almost as much as I liked the first volume. Although I don’t believe in magic or even ‘magicks’, there was enough universal cultural commentary relevant to the times to keep me hooked. And I will confess that one of my guilty pleasures when it comes to reading was a love of the romance genre, especially the Regency romances of Barbara Cartland and Amanda Quick. I blame this on (or credit this to) my sister who loved these books so much. Although I rarely crave this particular genre these days, I’m guessing that particular endorphin pathway is still neurologically strong. Nora Roberts trilogy has enough romance to reengage those particular neurons and she does it with all the delicacy some of those Regency romances entailed. 

When the seal that holds magick away from humans is broken in Scotland and both good and evil magic are loosed on the world they come in the form of a virus. Many die from this virus, millions, and the world is thrown into chaos. Some humans begin to learn that they have morphed into magical beings and some other humans, who have no magic are horrified by these magical humans and see them as abominations. They capture them and put them in containment centers where they devise experiments with various deviant purposes. So we have a culture that is dealing with the ‘others’, aliens, and it is not a proud moment in fictional human history, but which has some parallels in the real world.

Lana and Max, the first generation heroes, are witches who are being hunted by a group called the Purity Warriors, and by magical people who chose the dark side, the Dark Uncanny. They decide to halt their desperate escape at a small town which they, along with other first generation virus survivors, will turn into a community called New Hope. But this final book is the story of Lana and Max’s daughter, Fallon Swift, known far and wide as The One. And she is a refreshingly down-to-earth female heroine even though she is trained by her own Merlin and her path to power resembles the Arthurian legends (but this Arthur is a girl/woman). This final book in the trilogy, The Rise of Magicks is full of war and of love. This time Duncan and Fallon are grown-ups, no longer teens, and if you were frustrated that they each went their own way at the end of Book 2, then you will find it was worth the wait. While these are not the great American novel(s) they are an entertaining and addictive read delivered by a really talented, and very prolific, writer.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Book

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, much anticipated (possibly demanded) by fans of the TV series based on Ms. Atwood’s book. By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale we know that there is a resistance movement. It is modeled on the real and desperate escape route for American slaves, the Underground Railroad. This time it is called the “Female Road” and the magic rescue word offered to handmaid’s, who are virtually sex slaves, is May Day. Offred escapes Gilead through this underground route. But what happens after she escapes? Does she die? Does she find a safe place and live out her days in peace? Does she join the resistance?

Margaret Atwood is able to use her words to build scenes from both the past and the future that are vivid and that come to life in our minds. She builds the entire nation of Gilead. She does it like one of those artists who can capture the essence of a person or a place with just a few deft strokes. We find we don’t need every little detail. Because her new nation is similar to things we already know our mind fills in the blanks. The same skill is at work as we follow the resistance movement inside and outside of Gilead, and as a very surprising character engineers the demise of Gilead.

Gilead has besides the handmaids; the Commanders, their wives, the Marthas, the Econowives, the Aunts, the Guardians, and the Eyes. The Aunts are modelled somewhat on nuns. They live regimented lives, ruled by prayers and bells, they are the teachers of handmaids and of the daughters of Commanders, they are the only women in Gilead allowed to keep books and to read and write. Big mistake. In this male-dominated world men believe that women are now powerless, completely reliant on men, and that even the powers of previously educated, professional women such as doctors, lawyers, and judges have been completely defused. In The Testaments we find Commander Judd and Aunt Lydia basically in a respectful/hostile power struggle. Aunt Lydia was a force in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in The Testaments we learn about her secret powers (no magic is involved, just intellect). We learn that what Commander Judd cannot imagine will eventually bring him down.

We also meet a young teen who is living with a couple of resistance fighters who she almost believes are her real parents. We meet the Pearl Girls, missionaries from Gilead who are also unwitting partners in the resistance. When Gilead uncovers “Nicole’s” parents and blows them up Nicole (Baby Nicole was stolen from Gilead) is hurriedly trained to infiltrate Gilead as a captive of the Pearl Girls. Watching her reactions as she is introduced to this repressed culture and watching the reactions of the others to her is part of that charming skill that Margaret Atwood brings to her writing. Atwood successfully, but not exhaustively, wraps up the tale of the handmaids and offers us a new hero, a woman, of course.

Photo Credit – From a Google Image Search

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Book

From a Google Image Search – Secret Safe Books

As it had been many years since I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, I wanted to read it again before I read her new sequel, The TestamentsThe Handmaid’s Tale was written in times when women’s reproductive rights were a hot topic, although not at the height of the women’s consciousness movement. The birth control pill was greeted by women with relief and sighs for the freedom it gave women to avoid unwanted pregnancies. It also seemed to offer women the same sexual freedom that men exercised, although that freedom proved to be somewhat more illusory than women thought for a number of reasons, some having to do with the fact that we still live in a male-dominated society, some having to do with sexually transmitted diseases, and some having to do with social disapproval and the need to maintain a “good” reputation. The pill was greeted very differently by the church, especially the Catholic Church and the Pope. In 1973 the Supreme Court allowed for legal abortions in the United States in the now famous/infamous Roe v Wade decision and the reactions of women and the church were pretty much a repeat of the reactions to the birth control pill. I know – all this history – what a way to make a really good story really boring. The actual history is important, however, to any deep understanding of this very original tale. These women’s rights were always controversial although The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, when these new rights for women were less startling. 

I like science fiction and The Handmaid’s Tale is, in a way science fiction and it is certainly dystopian. It predicts a time in near-future America when men of religious faith decide that the new freedoms for women are not what God intended. Women are not meant to be equal to men. They are meant to be wives and mothers and submissive to their husbands. These men stage a revolution against the United States of America. They manage to kill the president, scatter Congress and nullify the US Constitution. They win enough territory in the middle of America and most southern states, except Maine, California, Florida and Texas, to form a new nation, the nation of Gilead.

Offred is a handmaid in the new nation of Gilead. She used to be a free American woman who was having an affair with Luke, a married man, who later divorced his first wife and married her (I tried to find her original name but did not find it). They had two children. Venereal disease and a viral weapon against mumps had rendered many men sterile and women often had problems conceiving or delivering healthy offspring. Population was declining. Women who had borne healthy babies were very desirable to the new nation of Gilead. They would suspend women’s ID cards and credit cards and make them unemployable and then they would kidnap them and reeducate them to be Handmaids in Gilead. It is not easy to turn a woman who has experienced freedom into what is basically a sex slave in a distinctive red habit hemmed in by about a million rules and almost as many Eyes (spies). Offred is not a happy camper. 

Of course you may have watched the TV series which I have not seen yet, but you really ought to read the book. It’s a classic. Choosing a name that would have fit right into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was not an accident. Here we are, almost 50 years after the Supreme Court made it legal to have an abortion, woman’s choice, and we still find concerted efforts, trickier but less militant, to overturn women’s rights to make important decisions about their own reproduction. We find many states passing laws that force clinics to comply with regulations that large hospitals can barely afford to comply with and when the clinics cannot meet the new requirements the clinics must close (TRAP laws), We find Evangelical churches that argue that even contraception is against God’s law. Federal courts are being stuffed with Conservative judges using as bait the overturning of Roe v Wade, and now marriage freedom. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has never been more relevant.