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.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Book

Goodreads.com

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a study of a family, an American family. It is a story told by the second child, a boy named Danny. It’s a story about a clueless father and husband who buys his wife a house, a famous house, built with much attention to detail by a wealthy family, the VanHoebeeks,. The ceiling in the dining room is a work of art, literally. The house has a ballroom and a conservatory. Since the sale was an estate sale, all the VanHoebeek’s belongings are still in the house, including portraits of husband and wife over the mantle in the drawing room. Despite all the architectural glories the house has a very small kitchen because the staff would use it, not the family. There is also a pool.

Into this ritzy house Cyril Conroy brings his wife. He bought the house for her as a surprise. At the time they had one child, their daughter Maeve. The house was a source of pride for the husband who was a real estate investor and property manager. But his wife, was appalled by the expensive details. She yearned to dedicate her life to helping the poor. Clive found Elna just as she was preparing to enter a convent, not yet a nun. He whisked her away and married her. We often see our partners in life through cloudy mirrors. We make assumptions that if they love us they must be like us. The Dutch House is a story about misplaced love and misunderstood love. Maeve shoulders all the responsibilities of these selfish parents when the family falls apart. Some people should never have children. She yearns for what they lost, the family and the house and the hired women who took care of them, Fluffy, Sandy, and Jocelyn. Maeve is obsessed and cannot move on with her own life. 

Although this is a story of a family, and of loss and reunion, even more it is a story of a house. If you have ever given a home and your heart to cats you know that some cats fall in love with people, but some cats fall in love with houses. How do Maeve and her brother lose The Dutch House and then get it back? Although nothing earthshaking happens, there are plenty of repercussions. What stories are more interesting than stories about families? Take your pick, but I will usually enjoy a good family saga by any writer as skilled as Ann Patchett. This book will probably be made into a movie, but doesn’t even have to be made into a movie because it already creates one in your mind.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

From a Google Image Search -CBS


The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Book

For me, it’s official, Mr. Coates can write. In The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates proves he can write fiction that is just as deep and accessible as his nonfiction. In The Water Dancer he writes about slavery (which he calls the Task) and abolitionists and the Underground, a subject that has had some good authorial attention in recent years. But, although the movement is present in the story, for Coates it is the people affected by slavery, the families torn apart, the histories lost, that matter. It is the inspirational struggles to create new family ties and to hold on to traditions, even if they had to be formed anew in a strange and terrible land.

Virginia is the state where the Lockless plantation tries to maintain an idle lifestyle, maintain a genteel veneer which rests on the shoulders of those who are tasked to do anything that might even vaguely be considered work. Every white person even has a personal maid or valet, a slave, who bathes them, grooms them, and dresses them. 

These white plantation owners were supposed to be farmers but they were so greedy and so tied to the payouts from their tobacco crops that they refused to believe that the crops they depended on were depleting the land they were planted in. Some of those who “tasked” on the land understood what was happening but either no one listened or, as the land produced less income, those who understood the land and the crops were sold away south and west – to Natchez and beyond. Slaves really were sold away to Natchez but Coates also uses Natchez as a symbol for family separation, for sorrow, for harsher conditions, for loss. 

Plantation owners, slave owners, sold off the most valuable “taskers” first so the family members who remained were left without the strongest among them, perhaps the most characterful, and the older slaves who kept the stories of celebrations and family ties alive. Sorrow that is never given time to abate collects and turns “the task” into a sadder, even more burdensome duty to preserve a failing white lifestyle even as the “taskers” see the community of their own, that they have been able to create in their captivity, disintegrate daily into grief and tearful good-byes.

Hiram Walker is a mixed-race son of Howell Walker, who also has a son by his white wife. Hiram who finds a home on the Street where the “tasked” live, a home with Thena, a women he is not related to, is a child with an excellent memory. He remembers every detail of what he sees and hears. But he cannot remember his mama. He knows her name is Rose. He knows she was a water dancer. He has seen her dancing in a vision on a bridge. A water dancer can dance joyfully and gracefully with an earthenware jar full of water on her head and not spill a drop. He knows his mother was a beauty, and he knows she had a sister, Emma – also a water dancer – because his “adopted” people have told him so. But where his own memories of his mother should be there is a hole.

Hiram also has a special talent. He can conduct himself across distances without being seen. In a land where no slave can walk off the land of his/her “master” without a pass, and where running away can be punished by near death (slaves are valuable property and so are rarely killed outright), someone who can “conduct” himself unseen has a very great gift indeed. But Hiram cannot control his talent and this is somehow related to what he does not remember about his mother. His love for another Lockless slave, Sophia, has grown over the years and it allows him to also accept and love her mixed-race child. Hiram needs to learn how to control his talent so that he can take the two women he loves and the child to freedom in the North.

Whether or not Hiram learns to control “conduction” and how he uses it is at the heart of this story but for me toil and survival, family and heritage; anger and sorrow and the mistaken idea that one person can “own” another – these things are the true heart and soul of this story. Conduction is part of an almost-lost origin story which never died even though the people the story belonged to were kidnapped, abused and held without freedom (in a land that supposedly treasured freedom).

I happen to be reading the Frederick Douglass biography by David Blight at the same time as I am reading Coates’ novel. These two book pair very well and one book seems to riff on the other. If white folks ever hope to understand not just why slavery was wrong but how the repercussions of this aberrant human behavior will echo forever in the souls and families of our fellow Americans of African Descent then The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates should add depth to your quest for understanding. I cannot speak to how black and brown people experience Coates’ novel but I hope to get exposure to some of their reactions.

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie – Book

From a Google image Search – NPR.org

Quichotte, Salman Rushdie’s most recent book is chock full of India-Indian Americans who seem as at home and doomed, with lives as empty as any American whose family has lived here for decades, or even centuries. Why are we here, not in America, but on this planet? Why are we intent on destroying the planet that is our home? What do we want? What does it all mean? We seem, in Rushdie’s tale as aimless as five dice in a Yahtzee cup.

Thematically Rushdie covers a lot of territory. Immigration or at least transplantation is in there, as are journeys, tilting at windmills, nostalgia, despair, guilt, hate, love, forgiveness, human failings, cultural failings, Planet B, apocalypse, dystopia and more, sort of an I Ching of modern pathologies.

This is a story loosely based on the Don Quixote story and Quichotte (Key-shot) is on a journey from Motel 6’s to Red Roof Inns across America peddling meds for his distant relation, Dr. Smile. Our Quichotte is a man with a big hole in his memory, a retrieval problem. He follows meteor showers from one magical western rock formation to another as he distributes his samples. Dr. Smile and his wife Happy Smile don’t think of themselves as drug dealers, but they are – so is Quichotte although he can barely be considered as capable of peddling anything.

Dr. Smile has created a new form of fentanyl to help cancer patients with breakthrough pain. It is sprayed under the tongue killing pain instantly. But it is very seductive and dangerous, the perfect pairing to make it beloved by those who abuse drugs. It is opioids on mega-steroids. Of course the drug escapes the medical boundaries of its designers and gets prescribed to just about anyone who wants it. 

Quichotte does not know he is a drug dealer. He is just working for his relative and fortunately he gets fired before his job becomes an issue, fortunate because he has many other issues, one of them being that he is in love. Dr. Smile and Quichotte cross paths again though.

If you have seen a mirror that reflects the same scene back to a vanishing point, mirror after mirror, then you have some idea of Rushdie’s story structure. Or perhaps it’s like a set on nesting dolls. We have brothers, sons, fathers, sisters, all over the place, all estranged, all seeking to reconcile. Everyone is questing to bind wounds from the past. Everyone is looking for love, mostly of the sibling variety, except for Quichotte who has fallen in love inappropriately with a young TV star, and has created a son (Sancho) from a fervent wish on a meteor shower. Also, the world is starting to flicker around the edges like an old film that is fading in spots or dying from overexposure to light or heat in others.

I always say that India and America are soul mates but it is perhaps more likely that the people of our two nations are the actual soul mates. Thanks for the trip Salman Rushdie. I hope this story, Quichotte, which seemed to say farewell, will be followed by more Salman Rushdie productions in the future. Maybe despair is our present and our future, but maybe not. Perhaps we can turn our own planet into Planet B and soon, before we destroy each other along with the planet.