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.

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

Gladstone-Empress Tor.com

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone – Book

A space opera of world building, world destroying, planet eaters, strange goddesses who stride across space, like the Suicide Sisters, and a “ragtag” group, united by a mission – Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone is a mashup of Star Wars and a complex video game, all brought to life with words rather than actual graphics.

Viv knows only Earth. She is a businesswoman. She has not been truly ruthless, but she has been heedless of other’s feelings as she climbed her way to the top of the business world. Just as she is in an enormous server room about to finish uploading a program which could give her dominion over her world, the Empress of Forever, very green and powerful in ways Viv has never even imagined reaches in and grabs ahold of Viv’s heart and zaps her into a place in space called High Cacereal. How is Viv still alive? How will Viv get home? How will she get back to Magda to make sure she is safe? How will she find out what happened when she sent out her virus before it was completely loaded?

Well the answers to those questions will not be quick in coming. Viv first saves the Empress’s enemy Zanj, a feisty space pirate who has been imprisoned for 3,000 years, one of the once-famous Suicide Sisters. Zanj, never one to sit still can use the Cloud to travel through space. The first of the group hunting the Empress that Zanj and Viv meet is the loveable Hong, a monk with lots of courage and common sense. Then Xiara of the piloting Ornclan is added, and Gray of the Grayframes. Of course our band of Empress-haters must travel to every corner of Max Gladstone’s  and Zanj’s world to see the damage the Empress has wrought.

Since Viv arrives in this world from the world of business she brings with her the wisdom success in business has taught her. This blend of How-to-Succeed-in- Business book lore, self-help psychological teachings, warcraft, and science fiction is kind of dazzling. How do people think up this stuff? It’s Linked in, Instagram, and World of Warcraft all rolled into one.

Despite this odd marriage of disciplines, Max brings his fantasy-built world richly alive for us. The novel is fun to read and as Viv learns the lesson that would have sealed her success as a businesswoman or made winning irrelevant, so do we. There is no I in team, but having the support of a truly connected team allows you to realize the very best version of yourself. Empress of Forever introduced me to a whole other kind of fantasy/science fiction novel for the computer age, perhaps intended for younger readers. Still, I found it fascinating to see how the genre is being transformed, and I made some new fictional friends.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – Book

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is a sort of a “cover” of the classic book Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This time there are only two girls in the Kaufman family who live in a little “Dick and Jane” house on Alhambra Street. They are named Jo (Josette) and Beth (Bethie) – the mom is Sarah and the dad is Ken.

My initial negative reactions to Mrs. Everything were decidedly generational. In Alcott’s book Jo and Beth didn’t have sex. Jo had ambitions that were not considered feminine, and she was aware that she would find it difficult to fulfill those ambitions, but she did not seem to struggle with her sexual identity, hardly an acceptable topic when Alcott wrote her novel.

However I got over myself. After all I am a child of the sixties. I did not find Bethie’s “rebirth” odd. I heard more than a few primal screams in my time. What bothered me more was the stereotypical presentation of the two sisters differing prepubescent personalities. Not every girl who likes sports and doesn’t care to play with dolls or wear dresses will be lesbian or have a sexual identity anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. The only saving grace for the lack of research into the subject can be found in the fact that the characters were intended to parallel the character differences between Alcott’s Jo and Beth.

Modern Jo knew that she was attracted to girls when she was in high school and she had quite a long relationship with her best friend. Her heart was broken for the first time when her first love got married to her high school sweetheart, a boy. Jo could never have pleased her mother by being as feminine as her mother wished her to be, and once her mother learned of Jo’s true sexual orientation, Sarah’s constant disapproval insured that Jo would be happy to leave for college.

Bethie (Beth) was every bit as feminine as her mother would wish her to be. She got lots of positive reinforcement. However, the lives these sisters actually lived most likely will not match the trajectory you think they are on. They were born into a decade of radical change. Trite but true, life happens.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner is about identity and reality, bravery and duty, social pressure, love, and broken hearts. It did not push the button in me that said “eureka, this is a great book”, but perhaps the way readers experience the quality of this book will turn out to be generational.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Chicago Tribune

Look for me at thearmchairobserver.com and on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Normal People by Sally Rooney – Book

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Two people, two Irish people, one male, one female, one from a wealthy family, one from a working class family, child of an unmarried mom are the focus of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Marianne’s and Connell’s worlds would not naturally connect, but in this case Connell’s mom cleans the house that Marianne’s family lives in. Connell’s mother is supportive and loving, doing all she can to provide for her son and to let him feel that he can talk to her and rely on her. Marianne’s father was abusive towards his daughter and his wife. Even with her father gone, Marianne’s family provides no haven of security. Her brother continues the abusive pattern of the father through a campaign of constant criticism and actual bullying which the mother refuses to intervene in. The absence of loving parents leaves Marianne alone to contend with her brother, although it is obvious she has no strategies to help her succeed against him.

Connell is a success in high school, despite his absent father. He is a football player and he’s an excellent student. Marianne uses awkwardness to keep everyone at bay in high school because she has no faith in her appearance or in her social skills. She does not try to look attractive or to make friends, but her isolation adds to her lack of self-esteem. She and Connell begin a secret and, at first, sexual relationship, but as they also talk to and confide in each other the relationship deepens and they begin to become more than friends but not an actual couple.

Connell’s academic skills and his relationship with Marianne give him the confidence to imagine escaping his working class roots and he goes off to the same upper class Trinity University that Marianne will attend, instead of going to Galway where his accent would not set him apart, instantly telling his schoolmates his background. He is a sort of fish out of water at Trinity, however.

Marianne is in her element at Trinity and she begins to fit in. The abuse she was subjected to in her family still has her choosing partnerships where she submits to cruel men. In fact as Marianne seeks out men who will treat her badly, she physically becomes thinner and thinner, frailer and frailer. (I did not like the idea that as she became more invisible, almost disappearing, she also, according to the author, became more and more beautiful. This equation which says the thinner you get the more beautiful you become is not necessarily either true or healthy.)

Connell and Marianne come together and part. They try to have relationships with other people but their unfinished business with each other keeps bringing them back into each other’s orbit, while their personality challenges keep driving them apart. It is a dance that is less about love and more about therapy. Can people repair childhood damages in each other? Can they do this without forming a lifelong commitment to each other? Maybe. Is this a bit frustrating to a reader who always wants characters this addicted to each other to find a happy ending? Of course.

Since this is a character-driven novel, do the characters ring true? Almost. They are just a bit too two dimensional for us to really care about them. This is not Anna Karenina. But of course modern Ireland, once quite as tragic as a Russia in transition, now has problems similar to those of any modern nation. These characters could come alive in a movie, but they are not quite that absorbing in Rooney’s book, Normal People. I did enjoy the rare occasions when Connell’s “Sligo” dialect was reflected in the text and I wished that we heard it more often. It is probably impossible to write a perfect book and although some authors come close it is always possible to find flaws, so despite my complaints this was still a novel that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

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