Friday, January 26, 2007

The Handmaiden's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Obviously not a new book, but one that was definitely worth a read.

I read a blog entry about it somewhere, I think in the context of a discussion about Children of Men. Certainly, there are some interesting messages in this book for anyone who's struggled with infertility and some elements are particularly timely given the politics of today.

A brief synopsis: In the (now very) near future the United States has completely changed... the government has been overthrown and a new ultraconservative, Christian-esque theocracy is in charge. Interestingly, at one point Atwood suggests that the coup was blamed on radical Islamists, and talks about what was supposed to be the temporary suspension of the Constitution turning into an entirely new form of government. Additionally, environmental contamination has rendered many parts of the country uninhabitable and it is to these areas that citizens who refuse to conform are sent.

Basically, a lot of what the new regime is about is the the subjagation of women. Women are no longer allowed to read or write, cannot really have social relationships and are essentially assigned rigid roles, which are even conveniently color coded - blue for the Wives, who are married to the highest ranking males, green for the Marthas, older women who are a lot like indentured servants, red for the handmaidens, who serve a reproductive function only and a multi-colored dress for what are called econowives, who must fulfill all household duties on their own.
Not only women are the targets, it seems that anyone who is not the cultural default (white male) is fair game and those who aren't sent to the colonies are hanged and placed on "The Wall" for everyone to observe. White men can also become targets, if the transgress against defined sexual rules (no homosexuality, no sex or really contact with Handmaiden's except for procreation, no adultery except with Handmaiden's, etc.)

The main character (Offred) is a handmaiden, her sole purpose is to produce a child for a higher ranking couple who is unable to have their own. She is essentially property as evidenced by the naming convention, "Of____ " Fill in the blank of whatever man she is currently trying to get pregnant by.

Throughout the book, Atwood points out that mens' status in this patriarchal society dictates that they be beyond reproach, therefore, the issue of infertility always falls squarely on the shoulders of the women... in fact, if a handmaiden fails to produce a "keeper" in her first three placements, she is declared Unwoman and is sent to the colonies, along with the feminists, lesbians and widows (Oh my.)

Atwood's storytelling style is pretty unique - I've not read her before and the tone of the book took some getting used to. She writes a lot of short, declarative sentences. The voice of Offred is intended to sound like the character herself recounting the events that happened to her. The story unfolds through a combination of Offred's description of events serving as Fred's handmaiden and recollections of her life in the time before. In general, I liked the way the story was told.

I didn't really like the appendix to the book. Essentially, some resolution is granted by our reading the transcript of an academic conference presentation about 100 years after Offred's experience. The idea is scholars have uncovered the story we've just been reading recorded on a series of audio tapes in the handmaiden's own words. I did think the tone of the conference was hilarious and unfortunately true to life based on my own experience listening to pompous speakers presenting their revolutionary ideas. But, as a storytelling element I thought it contrived and cheesy.

A lot of the ideas in the book resonated with me. The eery comments about a corrupt regime blaming various political events on Islam. The scary nature of the religious right and how sick and twisted a society could become without the separation of church and state. Maybe the tenuous nature of wome's rights - that is that they are granted by men, some of whom would rather do away with him. And, especially the reduction of a woman to the function of her uterus.

The book also made me wonder what would have happened to me in this society. An "unwoman" to be sure. Some dreadul life cleaning up toxic waste in the colonies. Though we don't ship woman off who can't have kids, I think there is an undercurrent of "wrongness" about women who can't or don't reproduce - whether out of choice or because they have fertility issues. I've heard people say that you aren't a woman until you're a mom. That people without children are irredeemably selfish. Lots of crap.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I loved this book.

It was hard to read. It is a riveting first person account of the author's first year of widowhood. I use that word explicit;y because there's a part of the book where she talks about the word "widow", and it stuck in my head.

Anyway, her writing style is almost one of stream of consciousness - only that consciousness is very skilled at telling it's story. What I really mean is that it's so intensely personal that you feel like you're in her head. But it's also beautifully crafted.

It's really just a book you have to experience. There's no real plot - just the discussion of her reaction to the unexpected loss of her husband and how that changed her world. This book madde me v. thankful for my life as it currently is and v. afraid of how it could so easily be different.