Friday, May 18, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale—Margaret Atwood

I am way behind in reading this book. It has actually been sitting on my shelf for a while (yet another $1.00 book at Half Price Books) but I just hadn't gotten around to reading it. I think it was one of those that everyone kept telling me I "have to read" and that makes me less interested. Even though it may be the best book in the world. There have been too many of those that have scarred me - Twilight would be an example. Poor choice, on my part, to listen to anyone about that.

Regardless, I am glad that I finally made the time to take in this one, spurred by a friend of a friend who insisted that I must read it.

In a future time when population numbers have dwindled, women are objects, vessels for younger generations, and the powerful men are to fertilize as many women as possible under the guise of assisting with numbers. These Commanders essentially own their "surrogates" (Handmaids) who do not retain their own names, but instead are given names that are derived from their commanders. For instance, our narrator is called Offred, as her commander's name is Fred. Names are changed when Handmaids are transferred to new households. The commanders have wives, who seem to be too old to have children of their own. When babies are born, they are raised by the commander and his wife, and the handmaid moves on to her next Commander.

In this time when women are objects (even more than they have been in the past, when they were property) they are not allowed to read, they must all wear full body coverings, and wear hats that are essentially blinders. There are no mirrors - vanity is a sin, after all. All options for escape or release are removed in order to ensure the safety of the Handmaids. Offred remarks that it looks as though where there used to be an overhead light, it has been removed, most likely because it could be used in order to hang oneself. It is very interesting to think about what the reaction would be to such a drastic change for our society. As our narrator says, she remembers the time when things were what we would consider "normal," and perhaps the generation younger than her remembers as well, but there will be a time in the all-too-near future when people won't know anything different. We learn that Offred had a whole life before society changed - a partner and a child. The reason that she has become a Handmaid (there are many different reasons for this particular role) is that she was not married to her partner, and he was in fact married to someone else when their relationship began.

Offred temps fate by breaking many of the society's rules. She begins to associate with her Commander outside of the ritual mating time, a relationship which is instigated by him. He allows her to read, he takes her out dancing, they talk about how things have changed. But she can't really be herself with him. Through her walking buddy, a fellow Handmaid, she learns that there are those who are rebelling, who are escaping, through a sort of Underground Railroad. She begins to have an affair with Nick, who is the handyman/chaffeur around the house. When she becomes pregnant, which should be a joyous occasion as she's been successful at her one reason for being, wheels are set in motion to help her escape.

In the afterword, we learn that tapes from Offred have been found, which is how we know about her experiences. The afterword takes place at a convention, a time even further in the future, when Offred's society is but a strange memory. Due to the naming and renaming of Handmaids, it's been near impossible for this convention to track down who Offred is. There is no way of knowing who she was before, even attempting to use the names that she has included: Nick, the handyman; Luke, her partner before the "revolution"; her daughter.

What is perhaps the most frightening about the scenario presented in this book is not its hypothetical - it is that situations like this have happened in the past, where groups of a society are targeted, persecuted, and made to follow strict rules. Historically this has progressed to the perceived need to be rid of this particular group. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be capable of learning from the past, and are doomed to repeat our mistakes, so a society like Offred's is not so far-fetched.

Overall a great, thought-invoking read. Margaret Atwood is fantastic.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul—Karen Abbott

Before opening their world-famous Club, the Everleigh sisters, too, were girls who disappeared, and they reconstructed their histories at a time when America was updating its own. To that end, this book is also about identity, both personal and collective, and the struggle inherent in deciding how much of the old should accompany us as we rush, headlong, into the new. (xii)

I have always had something of a fascination with prostitution. I don't think I'm the only one, and I hope for Karen Abbott's sake that I'm right. Focused on Chicago shortly after the turn of the century, but more specifically on the Everleigh sisters and their Club, this book was fascinating. Operating in a time and place where the field was especially tainted, the Everleigh sisters did their best to remain classy and dignified, in a profession that doesn't easily lend itself to that.

There was a great deal of persecution of the prostitution that was taking place at that time, and rightly so. Even though it had been at least ignored previously, there were some very legitimate concerns that surfaced with regard to he profession. There were many young girls who were being taken advantage of, being used and abused and sold to the highest bidder. The Everleigh sisters said from the beginning, they were going to have only girls who wanted to be there, they were going to interview all of their clients ahead of time, they were going to be in control and protective of their girls. They had waiting lists of girls waiting to get into their brothel.

Written in a thoughtful, almost novel-like format, Abbott is organized, and unbiased in this retelling. She doesn't approach prostitution with automatic derision. She covers both sides: the madams and pimps, and the side of the religious and legal opposition.

The Little Book—Selden Edwards

This is the story of how, through a dislocation in time, my son, Frank Standish Burden III, the famous American rock-and-roll star of the 1970s, found himself in Vienna in the fall of 1897.

I greatly enjoyed this book.

The weaving of historical content with emotional intrigue for our characters was quite engaging. I would liken it to The Alienist, another book which blended history with a fictional story. Well written, and truly a labor of love for the author, having written it over several decades.

In the book, fictional rocker and intellectual Wheeler Burden is somehow transported through time and space from San Francisco in 1988 to Vienna in 1897. He's confused as to his arrival, but is well acquainted with Vienna at the turn of the century, as his mentor the Venerable Haze (Arnauld Esterhazy) had recounted his time there repeatedly during their relationship. He explores Vienna, running into some bright up-and-coming minds, seeking out Freud to discuss his predicament. He also encounters his grandfather, his grandmother, and his father. His father Dilly Burden, a World War II war hero, has similarly been dropped into Vienna in 1897 after having been tortured by the Germans.

Although at times it felt a bit predictable, that was only after having been presented with several surprises. Surprises that were very welcome, as the previous truth was a bit disturbing...You'll understand if you read the book.

Something I have always wondered about books or media on the subject of time travel: logically, how would you be able to cause yourself not to be born? Because if you are not born, then you would not have existed to travel back in time to cause yourself not to be born. Admittedly, I am no expert on time travel, theoretical or otherwise. This book explores that exact issue. At the beginning of their encounter, Dilly tells Wheeler they must be especially careful not to be influential, most certainly with regard to their own family. But by his death, Dilly tells Wheeler that's exactly what they were sent to do: exactly what they did, even though they influenced their future. They influenced it exactly as they were meant to.