Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Best Intentions: Kid Readalong

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Making this post even more pathetic is how late it is.

At the beginning of the summer, I was all full of vim and vigor and determined to be a good summer parent. “We are going to have a family reading project!” I announced.

The enthusiasm was not infectious.

The idea was that my two boys, 8yo Guppy and nearly 11yo at the time Drake would read a book then write its title, author and a sentence about it in a notebook. I would read the same books, and we’d talk about them.

Great idea, right? Except that they both devoured all five Percy Jackson books in a week, not possible for me to follow suit given that I’m in three books groups AND FLIRTING WITH TWO OTHERS, WTH?

So I managed to re-read both Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.

All three of us liked them, we even dragged my husband G. Grod in, but the idea of all four of us reading the same books over the summer was ______

Like Mad Libs, let’s fill in the adjectives: bat$shit crazy? Crazytown bananapants? Well intentioned? Misguided? Delusional? Dumb? Silly?

And that just addresses the “all read the same book” premise. I surprisingly didn’t get much pushback on “let’s all read novels so you put down those stupid Garfield and Foxtrot collections” aspect. What I did receive floods of complaints on was the writing three things in a notebook. A couple samples:

img_20140917_113135_000

This is Drake’s. He obviously NEEDS practice on his handwriting. Translated:

The Westing Game. Ellen Raskin. Well, Westing/McSouthers/Eastman/Northrup was right; I would not buy something called Windkloppel toilet tissues!

He correctly used a semicolon, but cannot capitalize correctly.

img_20140917_113208_680

This was from 8yo Guppy. Translation:

The Sea of Monsters. Rick Riordan. Percy sails over a a title (sea of monsters).

While using the title as a noun is clever, this is merely restating the picture on the cover. Nice try, Guppy. It was better than this one, though.

img_20140917_113148_1891

A Wrinkle in Time graphic novel. Madeleine L’engle. It is science fiction. There are people.

And that was what eventually got me to give up. At which point they stopped reading novels.

So, thanks to me, the road to hell has yet another brick.

I won’t give up, though. I’m biding my time, gathering my strength, like that titan in Percy Jackson does (I just started #4). Novels, and loving them, are just too important to give up on.

And, Drake’s handwriting still needs work. As does Guppy’s smartassery.

TBR Piles

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

You guys all know what a TBR pile is, right, since you’re my people? It’s To-Be-Read pile. Or, in our case, piles.

The other night my husband G. Grod says that Steve Brust linked to a site that has maps of all the Aubrey/Maturin voyages. “ALL OF THEM!”

He was really excited.

For the not-as-nerdy readers, this means the fictional voyages of Aubrey and Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s series.

When he noticed I was not excited, he said snidely, or perhaps mock-snidely (sometimes it’s hard to tell) “Oh, yeah, you haven’t read them.”

See, they’re part of this ongoing squabble about how he recommends books then I don’t read them. And when I eventually do, then I gush about how great they are, e.g., Cloud Atlas.

In response, I simply gestured to my TBR pile on my bedside table.

img_5143

G started to laugh. Then, I pointed to his TBR “pile,” which is the top of our radiator.

img_5144

And, for fun, here’s a detail. Notice the cobwebs and thick layer of dust?

img_5145

And finally, because I’m letting it all hang out, here, I’ll admit the bedside table is only my most recent TBR. I had to take all the others and create a wall of books because we’re balking at buying new bookshelves.

img_5147

In my defense, the wall has become a sort of book catchall, accumulating things that aren’t To-Be-Read. Also, there are a few more stashes here and there throughout the house of things to-be-read.

Yes, we have a severe book-buying problem.

Ulysses/Infinite Jest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Some folks I know in the Twin Cities were twittering about a group read of Ulysses for next year’s Bloomsday, 6/16/15, and then on the topic of lit bucket lists, someone else mentioned Infinite Jest, which we could read from summer solstice to autumnal equinox, as they did in the original Infinite Summer readalong that got me to finally read IJ.

Do either of these sound exciting to you to read along and blog or tweet or whatever the heck?

Winnowing

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

With the annoying announcement that Google Reader is going away, I’m trying to break up with it before it breaks up with me. I’ve whittled my list of “must-read” feeds to a baker’s dozen. We’ll see if this helps with my time management and distraction issues as I move closer to the timesucks of a big writing deadline and a school fundraiser that I’m helping with.

The Eternal Question: What to Read?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

From “The tyranny of cultural choice is making my brain gasp” by Dorian Lynskey at The Guardian, which I got to via this article (which I didn’t like as well as the one it linked to) at Arts and Letters Daily

It reminds me how much I hate those litanies of things to read, see, hear or experience before you die, and the way they turn entertainment into an impossibly epic assignment to be completed before the ultimate, non-negotiable deadline, as if you will be on your deathbed guiltily confessing to your grandchildren that you never got around to watching the Three Colours trilogy even though you somehow found time for all six seasons of Lost. I find the beat-the-reaper concept irrational and self-defeating, not because I feel above it all but because it highlights how irrational and self-defeating my own attitude to cultural consumption has become.

I’m in three book groups, one of which I moderate. I’m enmeshed in the geekery of this months Tournament of Books. I’m in a Dickens readalong. So when my husband hands me a book and says, I think you’d enjoy this,” I feel guilty. I love books. Reading books. Talking about books. But there’s some tipping point where it turns into obligation. When was the last time I picked up a book just ’cause I wanted to? Let me see…

November 26. Victor LaValle’s Devil in Silver. Just because I wanted to. And I enjoyed the heck out of it. But since then, it’s been all book groups and ToB books, except for graphic novels.

And that’s one reason I love graphic novels–they don’t take as long to read. The pleasure to time factor is bigger than with a “regular” book. So I got to read Finder Library 2, Fairest, Wonder Woman: Blood, Fables: Cubs in Toyland, Drama, and Revival in the same amount of time. I enjoyed most of them.

I know I’ve written about the Tyranny of the TBR pile more than once. But how to buck it? Still haven’t figured that one out. Bet you guys haven’t either.

This About Sums it up

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

escapist

Yep.

Surfacing

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Greetings and Salutations, Friends and Readers! It’s been a while, no? Life’s been life-y lately, volunteering for an event at my kids’ school, applying to a writing contest/program, reading and struggling to understand Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a case of double pink eye, plus the usual merry-go-round of family stuff like sports and piano and reading and writing and such.

I’m out of practice with blogging, but eager to get back in the saddle. I’ve got book reviews, a few anecdotes, maybe even some food posts, all banging like Athena in my head, trying to get out. I hope you’ll see some of that in the next few days, now that things have settled down a little bit. (Fingers crossed.)

A Kate DiCamillo story

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

The teacher has been reading Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie aloud to 8yo Drake’s class. When she was close to the end one night, the next morning before school Drake “needed” to know the ending, so he asked to see our copy. I told him it was on the shelf with the other books by Kate.

“We have a whole section for her?” he asked wonderingly.

I told him to look in the D’s. Given that the first author he saw was Dickens, it took him rather longer than I expected to find Kate’s books.

When he pulled it off the shelf, he asked about the stuff inside: an article on Kate in the local paper after it came out, and some other Kate-related things. I showed him the inscription, which had an illustration of a dog.

Downstairs, Drake would not leave the house for the bus until he’d finished the chapter. I asked, I sternly asked, I raised my voice, then I realized I should just be quiet and let him finish his chapter.

As we walk/jogged to the bus, he said, “Our family is really lucky. Other families don’t have books signed by Kate.”

I responded, “Yes, we are a lucky family.”

“Bleak House” Readalong, Ch 1 to 6

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

I’ve found reading with a friend, be it book group, husband or online community, a great way to tackle chunky books that previously intimidated me, such as Don Quixote, Infinite Jest, The Baroque Cycle. So when I found out at O Canada Y’all that there was a Bleak House readalong, I threw my hat in the ring, in spite of having an overfull dance card.

I managed to finish the first six chapters of Bleak House by the goal date of today. Technically, I have till next Thursday to post my thoughts at The Unputdownables as well as here, but I think it’s best to jump in, and not wait till I “have time.” Ha.

Bleak House
was a slow start to me. There’s some heart-thrilling prose, but the first chapter is about the legal system and a long-drawn-out case, so it would be easy to give up. Soon enough, though, fascinating characters appear on stage: Esther, an orphan, her dead godmother Mrs. Dedlock, the wards of the court, Ada and Richard, and my favorite thus far, Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects her own family and home to lavish attention on the poor savages in Africa.

Reading about Mrs. Jellyby made me feel very good about my parenting and housekeeping.

One downside. The edition chosen for the readalong is the Barnes and Noble, which has both notes on the page and end notes, plus illustrations. Alas, the substantive, more interesting notes are at the end, while the ones at the bottom of the page, to which my eye is easily drawn, are not things that I need explanation for. They just trip me up as I read. I don’t need to have gout, reticule, coppice and barouche defined, and if I did, I could probably figure them out from context, thanks. It’s a quibble, though.

Illegitimate orphans, mysterious benefactors, crazy old ladies–and this is just in the first few chapters. I look forward to meeting the rest of the cast in the next 700+ pages.

March Madness: Book Stack of Imminent Reproach

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

books

Also: A Bit of a Pickle; Painted Myself Into a Corner; Bit Off More Than I Could Chew; or It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.

I am forever admonishing female friends who call themselves selfish, stupid, lazy, mean, bad mothers, etc. that this kind of self-denigration is hurtful because it’s not true. (Ironically, it’s the exceptional few who are selfish, mean, etc. who never make jokes at their own expense, and instead trumpet any good deed while never admitting a foible. Blergh, and get more therapy, are what I have to say to that.) How many men to you hear saying stuff like this?

So, I am not going to say any of the many self-criticizing things I might about my current biblio-conundrum., I actually think I go on book benders most often when my life feels least in my control. A book bender says I hope the future has more time for reading, and backs this up by piling up evidence of the priorities in my life.

Life’s been pretty life-y around here for some time. We’ve had multiple bouts of stomach flu, lice, an emergency family trip, and I was cajoled into a volunteer gig a whole lot more involved than the one I’d hoped for. As I said, life. In the face of the recent avalanche of mostly little things, my response has been to crave more reading time and to commit to more books. So my situation is not even as it often is when I buy more books than I can read. This time, it’s that I’ve committed to reading more books than I think is possible even when life isn’t bustling.

(An aside: WHY is life bustling in February? We’re supposed to be hibernating. This is a yin, not a yang season. February around here was like December. I blame global warming and the ridiculous non-wintry winter we’re having.)

Here, then, is my To-Read pile, which doesn’t even include everything I’ve said I’d read. I’d write more, but I have 4 chapters to go in Bleak House for tomorrow.

Please understand; not really complaining. Too much to read in too little time hardly qualifies as a problem.

Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. for The Morning News Tournament of Books
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson because it was recommended by a writing teach to me in the 90’s, and has been on my shelf since then, and a friend’s reading it now
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. I pressured a friend to read John Crow’s Devil. She pressured me back to read this.
The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah. For TMN ToB
Bleak House by Dickens for this readalong (darn you, Patricia)
Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories reading a story at a time to follow up on Wise Blood and Flannery from January.
The Best American Comics 2011, ed. Alison Bechdel. For one of my book groups. I love comics, yet I rarely even like many of the indie types usually represented in these compilations. I’m trepidatious about reading this one.

Not pictured: complete manuscript of colleague in writing group, partial manuscript of good friend, The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, the ten other books from The Tournament of Books that I haven’t read.

How I Read a Shakespeare Play

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

This is how _I_ read a Shakespeare play, and I’m not necessarily recommending it for anyone else. Also, I’m not an academic, and this is not a rigorous or systematic approach, merely the one that works best for my learning style. But it works for me, and it might for you, It’s a combination of different people’s advice over the years.

1. Plan to watch a performance. I think the reading of the play should go in tandem with a viewing. They were meant to be viewed, not read, though reading them brings its own rewards. For example, I am going to see a production of As You Like It tomorrow night.

2. The edition. I prefer single plays–they’re easier on the wrists. Yes, every house should have a collected edition for reference, but I buy individual books for each play I read. Because my dear and learned friend Thalia recommended the Arden editions to me many years ago, they are the ones I favor. They have all the background I could want for and more with footnotes on the page, so helpful when I want to know what that phrase means right now. My one complaint is that there is not a big enough visual difference/divider between the text and the notes.

3. The first reading. When I was in grad school, i.e. single and childless, I would read the play the first time through from Act 1 through Act 5 (no introduction or afterward) in one sitting, looking at the notes as little as possible. I was reading to get to the end, and divine as much meaning as I could before delving deeper. This usually took about 2 hours, depending on the play. Now that life doesn’t tend to have 2 hour stretches, I just read it from beginning to end as I can, picking it up and putting it down, but not adding anything else, even magazines or newspapers, in between.

4. The second reading. I re-read the play, starting with the introduction, with all the notes (or all the notes I can handle) and on to the afterward.

5. I see the performance and re-read or re-watch as is possible or desirable.

How do _you_ read Shakespeare?

Your Favorite Book?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I recently read Lonesome Dove, that a friend told me long ago was her favorite book. We’ve fallen out of touch, so I don’t know if it is, still. But I’ve always found that question interesting, so long as the responder doesn’t go all geekier-than-thou and make a long list of erudite works.

If I had to pick one favorite, it would be Possession by A.S. Byatt. I’ve only read it once, but it changed my life by helping me see the profound passion I have for religion and literature that I continue to explore today. I’ve recommended it many times, as it contains so much in one grand story: mystery, history, romance, literature, poetry, science, religion. I look forward to reading it again.

So I’m going to ask you a question. Gun to the head, about to depart for a desert island. What book (not the Bible or collected works of Shakespeare, but one work) do you pick?

I’ll post answers from the comments. Unless you list more than one. Then I will mock you. Pick one. Just one. You can do it.

Edited to add:

At Flavorwire, they have lists of favorite books by 10 authors from David Foster Wallace to Karen Russell. I like those two as they’re less pretentious than the rest of them. Big surprise: Franzen’s is LONG. Wonder what he’d do if I made him pick just one?

Amy from New Century Reading says:

If you won’t let me pick more than one, then I’ll have to (slightly) circumvent by saying that this is what I would pick today. Tomorrow? Could be different.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.

Hee, I love that you love this book and I actively hated it. I think it makes our book friendship so interesting. Also, Larry McMurtry studied with Wallace Stegner.

Jennifer from Tipsy Baker says:

This is going to sound so pretentious, but Anna Karenina.

Sigh. This is one of my shelf sitters. I don’t think it’s pretentious; it seems like a blanket-y epic a la Lonesome Dove.

Kate F says:

I cannot do it.

Comfort v. challenging on a desert island. Which I could reread over and over and over. I’m not sure if these confines lead to my favorite book, though . . .

Austen or Wodehouse, Austen or Wodehouse.

Fine. Sense and Sensibility.

(But you know, Little House in the Big Woods would have a lot of useful tips in addition to being comforting).

I understand Kate’s dilemma. I think she gets a little too literal when she tries to sneak a THIRD book in under the rubric of useful. Nice try. But I think what makes some books my favorites are that they’re both comforting and challenging. Wodehouse is delightful, but not necessarily challenging. Austen, to me, is both.

Jay says:

Usually when asked this I would say The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, but I recently retread Once a Runner and that really struck a chord so that’s what I will go with today.

Jay! You are one of the people I’ve asked this of before, and a previous answer of yours was A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, which I then read and now love.

Patricia from O Canada, Y’all, says:

Gun to my head? Lolita by Nabokov.

Don’t give me time to think. As I am writing this I am already wavering.

I am amusing myself by picturing someone actually holding a gun to a book geek’s head and waiting for it to decide (Sense and Sensibility!), then the book geek changes its mind (Wodehouse!) causing the gunholder to lose its temper and go all Tarantino on the book geek.

Patricia, I noticed Nabokov was on a lot of the lists at Flavorwire, some of which (at least the DFW) were from the Top Ten book you link to in the comments.

Gretchen says:

My favorite is, oddly, also Possession — which I think is probably why I so enjoy your blog!

Possession works on so many levels for me; it’s a mystery, a satire, a myth, and a romance, all bound up into one epic of an adventure story. And the ending never fails to makes me cry.

She tries to sneak in a few more, but I won’t be putting up with that, except to acknowledge that Gretchen, Jennifer, Amy and I have all been talking about reading Middlemarch, so I think there’s a Middlemarch zeitgeist going on. I’m choosing it for my book group for May. And now Patricia comments she’s wanting to read it too. I wonder if there’s a general Middlemarch groundswell out there, or just in our little corner of the world.

Jack says:

I have been talking about books I read when young with the boys. Willy Wonka. Or… no, you said only one.

Yay! Just one!

Kristi says:

The Outsiders by SE Hinton

I am ashamed to say I still haven’t read this.

In Thrall

Friday, January 20th, 2012

I’m reading Lonesome Dove, the book that’s sat the longest on my shelves without me giving up on it, and I’m loathe to put it down. I should be working on an article. Cleaning the house. Writing my novel. Doing laundry. Shovelling snow. (Why is spell check rejecting ’shoveling’? I thought the rule of thumb was ‘get the ell out’?) Yet all I want to do is read this book, and get lost with these characters, even as I get a mite too attached to them. They keep dying, which is what I suppose happened, way back then in the west.

“Odd and the Frost Giants” by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

As part of my reading of Norse myths and Gaiman after my re-read of American Gods, I read Odd and the Frost Giants aloud to my boys, nearly 8yo Drake and 5yuo Guppy. Read aloud to my boys after reading Gaiman’s American Gods last month. It’s a story (or myth, if you will) based on characters from Norse mythology. In short, a young man named Odd leaves his village and goes into the wilderness. Strange things happen when he encounters a fox, bear and eagle. My appreciation of it was heightened by having recently read D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, which explained a certain joke about a mare among other details. Guppy said he liked it “medium” but Drake really enjoyed it, as I continue to struggle with figuring out age-appropriate read-alouds for these two.

“D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths”

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

I borrowed D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths from the library to read along with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I remembered had a great number of references I wasn’t familiar with. I don’t recall reading the D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths as a child, though their Book of Greek Myths was one of my favorites. The new edition of the Norse myths has an introduction by Michael Chabon (which is also collected in his Maps and Legends) and was such an engaging, fantastically illustrated book with great stories that I went out and bought a copy for our home library. I don’t remember having this growing up, but I want my kids to. It indeed contributed to my enjoyment of Gaiman’s American Gods, as well as his Odd and the Frost Giants, which I just finished reading aloud to my two boys.

“The Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

After I finished reading The Mouse and his Child to 5yo Guppy and nearly 8yo Drake, I cast about for another book, and when I said “Narnia” Drake perked right up. I was torn between reading them in the order I read them growing up, which was chronological by publishing date. But I have a hardcover set that puts them in order by the events of the story. Since Drake can be a stickler for things like that, and I didn’t feel like arguing, we started with the book labeled 1, The Magician’s Nephew; the story takes place before that in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

A young boy named Digory moves to his aunt and uncle’s house in London when his mother falls ill. He makes friends with Polly, the girl who lives next door, and they discover that Digory’s uncle is trying to find ways to travel among worlds. The uncle tricks the children into exploring for him, and their adventures include a dying world, a wicked witch, a just-created world, talking animals and much more. Christian allegory, which I didn’t recognize so clearly when I read this as a child, abounds. It is a solid adventure story featuring interesting child protagonists confronted with a variety of moral and ethical dilemmas. There is some humor, but it was more apparent to me, the adult reading the book, than to my young children who listened to it. I enjoyed revisiting the book. Their verdicts? Drake said he liked it and was interested in the next book. Guppy was grumpy, and said he did not, so I may have picked a(nother) book he’s not yet ready for. I’ll keep trying. Next up is Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants.

Being Well-Read: To Cull or Surrender?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

From: “Does Anyone Want to Be ‘Well-Read?’” by Roger Ebert at The Sun Times laments:

At the end of the day, some authors will endure and most, including some very good ones, will not.

and writes an impassioned defense of reading:

That’s how I’ve done my reading: Haphazardly, by inclination. I consider myself well read, but there has been no plan.

At NPR, Linda Holmes talks about the two approaches we can take to being well read in “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything“:

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time…

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read.

I don’t think culling or surrendering are mutually exclusive. But as I age, I’m leaning more toward surrender. Linda says:

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery.

I disagree. I find culling exhausting. Too many decisions to make. So I lean toward surrender, but tend to forget sometimes, especially when I’m in a bookstore. I returned a handful of recent purchases today. I resisted buying more. I don’t need them, don’t have time for them, and if either of those things changes, I can buy them later or, better yet, borrow them from the library. I haven’t read, and won’t read, most of the authors Roger Ebert mentions. I’m OK with that. I came late to the desire to be well-read, and feel I am doing a decent job of catching up.

Summer Reading Project Idea!

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

An idea for this year’s summer reading project came to me yesterday. Last summer was the Baroque Cycle, the year before was Infinite Summer.

This year I want to read Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and re-read the books featured in each of the 10 chapters. I’d do a chapter a week, and will read as many of the books in each chapter as I can/want to. (I won’t, for example, be re-reading Clan of the Cave Bear, though Flowers in the Attic might be entertaining in an ohmygawd way that Clan is too earnest for.)

For example, Chapter 1 focuses on Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, and Harriet the Spy, with Farmer Boy, Danny the Champion of the World, Ludell, and the Great Brain covered briefly. I LOVE the idea of re-reading at least those first four books.

Anyone else think this sounds like loads of fun? For anyone who has older daughters, it might be like one long mother/daughter book group.

A concern: Shelf Discovery is very heavy on Judy Blume, who I do not remember THAT fondly. Where is the William Sleator, House of Stairs? Also, where is Amityville Horror, Amanda/Miranda and Lace for that final chapter on reading stuff we shouldn’t have been? It might be fun to reference titles like these from our individual reading histories that relate but aren’t included.

“Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing” by Margaret Atwood

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing was recommended in Valerie Martin’s Introduction to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I recently re-read. This is not Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a friendly, funny self-deprecating book for writers. This is an erudite, dry-humored, cerebral book on writing. It was challenging (in a good way) but not necessarily enjoyable, if you know what I mean. The six chapters are taken from a series of lectures Atwood did at the University of Cambridge. They concern (but are hardly limited to) questions of who is a writer, the difference (if there is one) between a writer and her work, the difference between writing for art or money, whether writers “should” write morally improving tales, who is the audience, and finally, what is the relation between writing and the fear of mortality.

The two chapters Martin recommends are the one on duplicity:

(after a gruesome question that ends the previous paragraph.) Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. (35)

And the final one on negotiating with the dead:

But dead people persist in the minds of the living. There have been very few human societies in which the dead are thought to vanish completely once they are dead. (159)

Martin doesn’t spell out why she thinks these chapters are particularly relevant to The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d speculate that the chapter on duplicity grew out of the reaction to Handmaid’s Tale, and how much speculation there must have been as to Atwood’s own politics and feminist sensibilities and biases. And the final chapter, about negotiating with the dead, is relevant to the analysis of the final chapter of Handmaid’s Tale, SPOILER

in which future academics analyze the past narrative artifact the reader just read.

The (or is it An?) Unsettling Ending of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Since this post is obviously going to have spoilers for the book, I’ll start off with a story. My friend RG was a student at Swarthmore College when Margaret Atwood visited. After Atwood’s talk, my friend went up to her and asked, knees knocking to be in the presence of one of the great writers of our time, “Ms. Atwood, what happened at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale? I didn’t think it was clear.” Ms. Atwood replied, (frostily? kindly?, looking over the edges of her spectacles? I’m not sure) “What do _you_ think happened, dear?” in what was obviously a rhetorical question, or an oblique answer phrased as a question. My friend felt both dejected at the lack of clarity and embarrassed at still not “getting it.”

I’ve come to believe that ambiguous, “lady or the tiger” type endings are a sign of respect the author gives the reader. They’re certainly a hallmark of the Atwood novels I’ve read: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, and Alias Grace. Yet their frustrating opacity often serves the opposite purpose of complimenting a reader on her capacity to draw her own conclusions. Instead it enrages many readers, who feel cheated that they don’t get a definitive ending. (This is a frequent criticism I’ve heard about Tana French’s In the Woods, which I re-read recently.)

SPOILERS AHEAD:
*
*
*
*
*
The final section of The Handmaid’s Tale is titled “Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s the supposed transcipt of a future symposium of the history of Gilead, the republic the previous narrative was set in. On my recent re-reading, I found its most unsettling aspect the almost throw-away remarks that things in Gilead got much worse for women and liberty in general after the events described in the narrative. But that was before I read Valerie Martin’s helpful Introduction* to the Everyman’s Library edition.

Martin suggests further reading, and recommends among them a collection of critical essays Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms ed. Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro. Two essays deal specifically with The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nature and Nurture in Dystopia” (to recap: they’re reversed) and “Future Tense: Making History in The Handmaid’s Tale” by Arnold E. Davidson. After reading Martin’s gloss on Davidson, then the essay itself, I felt naive for having felt unsettled by one thing only in that last section.

The historical notes with which The Handmaid’s Tale ends provide comic relief from the grotesque text of Gilead. Yet in crucial ways the epilogue is the most pessimistic part of the book. Even with the lesson of Gilead readily at hand, the intellectuals of 2195 seem to be preparing the way for Gilead again. In this projection of past, present, and future, the academic community is shown to have a role, not simply an “academic” role (passive, accommodating) but an active one in recreating the values of the future.

I highly recommend seeking out Anderson’s essay after you finish reading The Handmaid’s Tale for a thorough, provocative, and disturbing close reading of the last segment of the book.

*I really wish that the material so often put before a text was put after it. I don’t want an analysis or context _before_ I read. While it’s my preference, I know I’m not alone, and I doubt I’m in the minority. I also think acknowledgements before the book rather than after are pretentious and obnoxious. Brief dedication, yes. Lengthy name dropping? Ugh.