Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Kissing is forbidden between us. This makes it bearable.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a hyper-Christian dystopian society where nuclear spills and rampant pollution have left only a tiny portion of the female populace capable of reproducing. (I KNOW, right? GREAT START.) The superlucky women able to reproduce are required to serve as 'handmaidens' to the upper echelon of women who are unable to reproduce. The government's justification for this policy is the biblical precedent of Abraham and Jacob taking handmaids to bed when their wives were unable to bear children (hey - if the Bible says it's OK, it's OBviously OK.). When the book opens, the narrator, Offred, is currently a handmaid to a man known simply as 'the Commander' and his wife, Serena Joy. This is Offred's third handmaiden placement (3rd time's the charm!). Offred is allowed to live with the family and provided room and board with the expectation that once a month she participate in a ceremony in which she, the Commander, and Serena Joy spend some Quality Time together. (I think you get my drift. And oh yeah, that's right - Serena Joy is there, too. And not in a fun sort of way.) If Offred becomes pregnant, she will be hailed as a hero and the baby will be given to Serena Joy to raise. If Offred attempts to escape, she will be killed or sent to 'the Colonies' to clean up toxic waste, which is essentially a death sentence. (Great choices, right? GET PREGNANT OR DIE. But no pressure.)  The novel chronicles Offred's time with the Commander and Serena Joy while simultaneously flashing back to Offred's life before the handmaid era. Offred had a husband, Luke, and a daughter, but she lost touch with them in their attempted escape to the Canada, and she doesn't know if they are alive or dead. Over time, Offred develops a bizarre relationship with the Commander, who seeks companionship (and I mean actual companionship, not code for anything sexual - see Scrabble below) from warmer company than his (demonic shrew of a) wife can provide. Offred's small acts of rebellion with the Commander make her more and more confident and lead her to further test boundaries (and violate the law) by engaging in relations (OK, yes, this time I do mean sexual) with Nick, the house's driver. Offred also becomes aware of a counter-revolution movement through another handmaid, Ofglen, but when Ofglen disappears (code for commits suicide), Offred is left with newfound confidence and no connections to the resistance. The book ends with Offred being taken away in a van by 'the Eyes', the government's equivalent of the secret police, and we are unsure whether they are true 'Eyes' or members of the resistance in disguise.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

For the most part, I enjoyed reading this book. I thought I had read it once before, in my AP Language and Composition class senior year, but now I think perhaps we only read excerpts, as several sections seemed totally new to me. [Fun nerd fact: I petitioned the school to let me take both AP Language and AP Literature my senior year because it was the first year they offered AP Language (AND BECAUSE I'M AWESOME LIKE THAT). I gave up a lunch period and ate in French class with my besty, Dee. Best decision ever! I got to read SO MANY THINGS! All of the books! haghahgahghag #suchanerd #sorrynotsorry] My only real complaint about the book was that I was deeply dissatisfied with the ending. I know there are lots of books where authors intentionally leave things up in the air, and they're all, 'aren't I soooo thoughtful and mind-blowing and aren't you just BASKing in my Brilliance?' and this book fell into that trap a little, in my opinion. The ending is totally a big fat question mark, and while in some novels, that feels in and of itself like the answer to the question you've been seeking, this one just felt like she couldn't commit to an ending, happy or sad, so she just went with...nothing! Non-endings are the new ending. They're SO in right now. There's also a weird fast-forward epilogue at the end that's supposedly the notes from an academic conference in 2195, and I just found it confusing and annoying and didn't think it fit with the rest of the book at all. 

That said, I think it's a pretty brilliant novel, and the ideas are striking and provocative. The writing is also exquisite at times, and Margaret Atwood is a fantastic example of the oft-underrepresented in the classical 'oeuvre' highly talented female writer. So feel free to ignore my personal feelings on the ending and grab a copy anyway! It's worth the read, even if you end up agreeing with me about the ending.

This book and I have the same age. That is neat. 
I try to check the copyright date for books before I start them so I know when they were written. (sidebar - have you noticed that if a book is quite old, it's often impossible to tell when it was written from the book itself? The copyright will be much newer than the original print date. We should work on that! How are you supposed to know how old the book is? How can you celebrate its birthday? Hahgahghgahg books don't have BIrthdays, silly!) In any case, I checked when this one was penned, and guess what? It was printed in the same year that this lovely blogstress (YES, I've decided that IS a word) came into the world. It was a sort of bizarre feeling, though I can't really say why. I guess it struck me as odd that someone had enough experience of the world to write a failing version of it just as I was an infant coming into being, hoping for the best from it. 

Allen E. Yeakel, Mt. Joy Anesthesiologist?
My copy of this novel was stamped as coming from the library of Mr. Allen E. Yeakel. I tried googling him, and it seems there is one such person who is an anesthesiologist in Mt. Joy. Perhaps it is he! Do you think he liked the book? Do you think he read it? He kept it very clean, in any case. So thank you, Mr. Yeakel. Thanks for not eating cheese puffs and smearing your grubby paws on the pages. #smallthings #blessed

On Islamic fundamentalists
On the initial revolt that leads to the 'handmaid era': "It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time."
I found it striking that already in 1986 the author was referencing laying blame on Islamic fanatics. I know that Islamic fundamentalism has been around for a long time, but blaming acts of terror on fanatics of Islam feels very recent to me, as it only really came on my radar on September 11th, 2001, when I was a sophomore in high school. I guess either Margaret Atwood had a keen eye to the future of international relations between the West and the Middle East, or adults were much more cognizant of the escalating tension than I was as a child. 

Offred, Ofglen, Ofcharles, Ofwarren
Sometimes it takes me a long spell to figure out really simple word blends. Example: the other day (and I'm talking literally, the other day, not ten years ago) I realized that Dunkin' Donuts is 'dunking' donuts. Obviously I've said the name hundreds of times, and bought countless coffees, but never having actually dunked a donut there, it had simply never occurred to me. This happened again when I was working on my sourdough starter which was given to me by my only new friend, and I stopped mid stirstroke and said out loud, SOUR. DOUGH. Dough that is sour. ahghaghahghaghagh.
the simpsons animated GIF

Cue the same scenario as I'm reading this book. 'Offred. What a weird name. It's almost like spelling 'offered' wrong. Ofglen is weird, too. Why do all the handmaidens' names start with 'Of'? So weird. 
OHHHHHHHHH. Of. Like of so-and-so. As in his. Belonging to him. Him being the name of the husband they are handmaid to. 

Common themes in dystopias
Having read quite a few dystopias in my day (that sounds like a Very weird start to a snobby professor's lecture - "I've read Many a Dystopia in MY day...), I thought I would assemble a list of common themes for you. Get. Excited. 

FYI, dystopias are heavily represented on my list, and in my non-list reading choices. Here are the ones I've read so far:

Included on my blog list
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • The Stand, Stephen King
  • The Trial, Franz Kafka
  • The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Not on my blog list, but read during the time I've been blogging
  • Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent series, Veronica Roth
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
Apparently, we like dystopias. What's your favorite dystopian novel? It's also worth noting that all but one of the books listed above were written in English. So apparently English speaking authors are ParTicularly obsessed with the future devolution of society. (Don't you love my Super random analysis? My quant professors are shouting in my ear, "correlation does Not equal causality!!!!!" ahgahghagaghag #youdontownme  #idonthavetolistentoyouanymore (handsoverears) ) 

Common themes
  • Absence/removal/miseducation - dystopias often center around the removal of something that we used to take for granted, as well as the removal of something explicitly to subjugate or disenfranchise a group or groups of people. In The Handmaid's Tale, women are the dominated group, and they are no longer allowed to own property, work for a living, read, or write. But we don't need a fictional dystopia for that. It reminded me of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird:
"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."
  • Horrible food - apparently, bad food is as much of a prerequisite for dystopias as it is for college campuses across the country (aHem - Haverford). It contributes to the generally demoralizing aspect, and it also speaks to the 'absence' piece above (rationing, scarcity, etc.) The handmaids are generally fed fairly well, though, since they are the BABYMAKERS. I loved the scene where Offred slowly and joyfully eats a soft-boiled egg. My mom used to soft-boil eggs for me when I was little, and she'd cut up the toast in strips and we would crack the shell together and scoop out the innards. We had a bunch of little egg cups in our china closet, and Offred speaks fondly of her 'blue china egg cup' and says, "Pleasure is an egg." I know just what you mean, girl. :0)
  • Suicide preferable to death - dystopias are defined as 'an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one'. One of the first lines Offred writes in her description of her new room at the Commander's house is "They've removed anything you could tie a rope to." Mmmhm, nice and Dark, just how I like my coffee. ;) This is practically a requirement for dystopias - if death isn't desirable, it's probably not dark enough. (Cough Cough - NIGHTLOCK BERRIES, anyone? Peeta? Katniss? Any takers?)
  • Violence/torture as a lesson/control - this hardly needs explanation. What better way to dominate and control a group of people than to torture them any time they step out of line? 
  • Book burning - referenced in The Handmaid's Tale, and the main subject of one of the books on this list. That's right, you guessed it, THE LORD OF THE FLIES! haghagha oh wait. That's not right, is it?
  • Faked news - Oooh, how else can we confuse people and disenfranchise them? We won't let them know what is going on! Ever! Better yet, we'll just Make Things Up. This one comes up quite often, and is deeply disturbing. Can you imagine turning on the news in the morning and thinking to yourself, well, there's a 30% chance that anything they're saying is true. Oh wait, that's Fox News! 
aNd Now for Something Completely Different - more random thoughts, in no real order...

Margaret Atwood makes up this word to represent the collective murder of a person by a group. I suppose group stoning would be the closest real-life referent. In one scene, the handmaids are asked to collectively kill a man for his alleged crimes against women and the state. It immediately reminded me of a chapter in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was probably the most difficult scene I've ever had to read. A group of villagers collectively (and proactively, as in, we'll kill you before you can kill us) execute their fellow villagers in the Spanish Civil War, by attacking them with common farm tools and pushing them off a cliff, and the scene is grisly and harrowing. Perhaps the most provocative question it raises is this - if everyone participates, who is to blame? 

"All novels are letters aimed at one person" - Stephen King, On Writing
I've always loved this Stephen King quote, and I find it really apt. This line from the book made me think of it:
"You don't tell a story only to yourself. There's always someone else. A story is like a letter. Dear You, I'll say. Just you, without a name."
--"By telling you anything at all I'm at least believing in you, I believe you're there, I believe you into being. Because I'm telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are." Sometimes I forget that a book requires a reader. It is a conversation, and just as you cannot read without a book, a book has no meaning without a reader to read it. 

On smells
One of my favorite things about literature is when it pushes the imagination beyond the literal. Here are some great lines about the smell of something that doesn't explicitly have a smell:
  • "Caddy smelled like trees in the rain." Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  • On Serena Joy during the ceremony: "The smell of her crying spreads over us and we pretend to ignore it." Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  • On the commander: "At least he's an improvement on the previous one, who smelled like a church cloakroom in the rain; like your mouth when the dentist starts picking at your teeth; like a nostril." Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  • "Everything was dead quiet, and it looked late, and smelt late. You know what I mean - I don't know the words to put it in." Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
On Fels
"The high school is old, the stalls are wooden, some kind of chipboard. I go into the second one from the end, swing the door to. Of course there are no longer any locks." The state of disrepair in the bathrooms at the handmaids' training center reminded me of Fels, the high school I worked at in Philadelphia. The stalls in the girls' bathroom were all too short, so you could look over and see the person next to you, and usually only one stall had a working door. There were never any paper towels, and you often had to go scouting if you wanted more than a scrap of toilet paper. I guess Fels was its own little present-day dystopia.

Let's play a GAME. 
The Commander's games of Scrabble with Offred were one of my favorite parts of the book. It's so delightfully unexpected, because you think maybe it will be something mean, or kinky, or bizarre, and then it's... SCRABBLE. (or, as my students at Fels liked to call it, Scramble. I'm gonna call you Murder.) Here are a few snippets from The Scrabble Series:

-- The Commander, to Offred: "I'd like you to play a game of Scrabble with me."

-- Offred's response: "Now it's forbidden, for us. Now it's dangerous. Now it's indecent. Now it's something he can't do with his Wife. Now it's desirable...It's as if he's offered me drugs." No, I'm not into meth. I do Scrabble.

"We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them in my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious."

-- Offred, imagining them getting in trouble: "Caught in the act, sinfully Scrabbling. Quick, eat those words." These are my favorite lines in the book.

-- The Commander, getting boozy during Scrabble: "Sometimes after a few drinks he becomes silly, and cheats at Scrabble. He encourages me to do it too, and we take extra letters and make words with them that don't exist, words like smurt and crup, giggling over them." heheheehehehe smurt! crup!

Now it's time for Everyone's favorite section - NEW WORDS!

riffle - turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually (did you know there's 'rifle' and 'riffle', both verbs? I know, #confusing)

curio - a rare, unusual, or intriguing object (this makes me think of the word mercurial)

peccadillo - a small, relatively unimportant offense or sin (I always think this is an animal - but I guess that's the ARMAdillo ;)

filch - to pilfer or steal (something, especially a thing of small value) in a casual way (hehee, isn't J.K. Rowling CLEVEr? she's so clever.)

semaphore - a system of sending messages by holding the arms or two flags or poles in certain positions according to an alphabetic code (see image) (I definitely thought a semaphore was part of a dress. Not sure where that thought came from. Thoughts, anyone?)

Passages I found ParTicKelarly Pleasing:
  • On handmaid indoctrination in an old school gym: "Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light."
  • "Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or."
  • "I hunger to commit the act of touch."
  • "I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I'd turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red."
  • "Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough, when the time comes."
  • "Given our wings, our blinkers, it's hard to look up, hard to get the full view, of the sky, of anything. But we can do it, a little at a time, a quick move of the head, up and down, to the side and back. We have learned to see the world in gasps."
I'll leave you with this line from one of Offred's flashbacks:
"I held the cat up against my chest so I could feel her purring against my throat."

I like to do this with Suzy sometimes - well, she's a little tubby (but NOT CHUNKY, OK, mean vet lady?) so I usually smush my ear up to her chest while she's curled up in a ball. I love to feel the vibrations and the dull roar echoing through her little bones.

I finished this book a while ago, but have had a hard time motivating to post about it. I will dutifully reread Reparation, though I read it once already and can't say I really liked it. But join me if you will! We're almost down to the final ten! Happy Friday, friends!