Archive for the 'Thinking and Theories' Category

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.

Random Thoughts and Laundry Hints

Monday, February 25th, 2013

My friends often ask, “How do you read so much?”

First, I’m a freelance writer and stay at home parents of two kids in school full time. I don’t make much money, but I have a lot of wiggle room in my schedule.

Second, I tell them to come look at my house and its escalating level of filth.

Alas, sometimes the filth gets so noticable, or I need something and unearthing it starts an accidental organization project, which is what happened this morning, and lo and behold, I did some cleaning.

No reading, no writing. Alas, some time on Facebook kibbutzing about the Oscars (which I mostly enjoyed. Socks in the dryer and giant-eyed sock puppets! Shatner! My boyfriend Channing Tatum dancing!)

For me the same thing is true of cleaning that is true of any other work like writing: I don’t like doing it, but I feel good about having done it.

So, in honor of my recent burst of housewifery, some advice I’ve received, or things I’ve learned over the years about laundry.

1. If you’re in a bad mood, do a load of laundry. It won’t make you feel better, but you’ll have a load of clean laundry. (shout out to the Steve who said this, wherever he may be.)

2. Do two loads. No matter how backed up laundry is, if you do two loads a day, you will eventually catch up, and two loads won’t kill you (See #1).

3. Always empty the lint trap before you start the dryer. Clothes dry faster (one of the lessons I learned in college. An expensive one, my parents would agree, but useful.) plus if you forget and take it out once it’s started, things can get clogged and flame-y in there, sez a friend named Jen.

4. If you can’t face doing laundry, do a load of pants. This one’s from my friend The Hoff. They’re easy to fold. Leave the socks and underwear and dish towels for a day you’re feeling more resilient.

5. Powdered detergent, and not much of it. Liquid detergent is a scam.

6. Borax does not dissolve very well and will clog your machine. Beware.

Who Wielded the Most Literary Influence?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

From “Dickens, Austen and Twain, Through a Digital Lens,” (hat tip friend V)

Any list of the leading novelists of the 19th century, writing in English, would almost surely include Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain.

But they do not appear at the top of a list of the most influential writers of their time. Instead, a recent study has found, Jane Austen, author of “Pride and Prejudice, “ and Sir Walter Scott, the creator of “Ivanhoe,” had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.

Numbers aren’t everything, but I find it interesting to ponder that Austen and Scott–reductively romance and adventure, hers and his–come out, literary DNA-wise, as the progenitors.

Also, how awkward is the punctuation of the article’s title, given the NYT choice not to use the Oxford comma? Perhaps only we copyeditors (copy editors?) would care or notice.

Inbox Zero?

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I’m not sure I can recall the last time (ever?) I got my inbox to zero. My feed reader, yes. Trying to practice new habits, I saw Inbox Zero for Life.

Doable? I don’t know. Has my smart phone made my bad email management worse? Don’t know.

I’ve been whittling away at the inbox today, and am down about 75. Only 850 to go…

Wonder if I can get to zero.

Staying Put

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

This past September I passed a couple of personal milestones. My husband, I, and 9yo Drake have lived in our current house for 8 years. I believe this is the longest time I’ve ever lived in one residence. My previous record was a house in a far-flung suburb of Columbus, Ohio. We moved there when I was 10 and I left for college at 18. I came back the following summer, but my parents and I clashed over my very bad behavior, so I began my sojourn on the East Coast, almost 11 years in DC and Philly. I lived in, at my best guess, a dozen different places during those 11 years. My husband and I got married and moved to MN when he got a job here. We rented in a close suburb for 3 years, bought a condo downtown (which was great until we had a baby, then it sucked) and then (finally I hope) bought a house in a family-friendly neighborhood in Minneapolis where we’ve been ever since.

As best I can figure, I lived non-consecutively in OH for about 13 years, and consecutively on the east coast for 11 years, and consecutively in one Ohio house for slightly less than 8. Other than that long stretch from when I was 10 to 18, I never lived in any one apartment/space longer than 3 years. I’ve now been in Minnesota for 14 years, and in the same house for over 8.

About five years ago (when we’d lived in the house just over 3 years), I became very anxious about the accumulation of stuff and where to put it, and bewailed my lack of organizational skill. I even made a category on the blog for Organization. (It has very few entries.) Then I realized–prior to that point, I moved so often that my life had purging built into it, and I was feeling anxious at about the time–3 years–that I usually moved. Now that I was and would be in one place, I no longer had the urgent excuse to purge that moving provided.

I wish I could say that realization made me shape up and get organized. It hasn’t. My house is filled with blowing and drifting piles of crap. Now that 6yo Guppy is in 1st grade we have the avalanche of school papers from 2 kids, and I am fast losing my ability to know what pile something’s in. I spent half a day last week looking for a particular piece of paper. I am and probably always will be a sporadic perfectionist (occasional compulsive?) which means I make dents now and again, but then entropy takes over, piles grow and the cycle starts all over again. I probably should figure this organization thing out, though, since our house is small and I’m eventually going to run out of room.

It’s odd seeing how other people live, those who stay put and put down roots. I have no intention of moving, but life sometimes decides otherwise. I’ll have to wait and see if my plans and the future align.

“Your Sixth Sense”

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

From “Your Sixth Sense” at Psychology Today, on why people are drawn to paranormal explanations. (via The Morning News)

As with most forms of paranormal belief, people who do not feel in control of their lives are more likely to believe in precognition, perhaps because to accept premonitions is to think that the future is already laid out for you, without your input.

Is it a coincidence that this article should run the week we’re talking about paranormal books for teen girls?

A quote from the new Batman movie:

“I’m a detective. I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.”

“Blood and Power,” a guest post by Sarah Caflisch

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

occult /oc·cult/ (ŏ-kult´) obscure or hidden from view.

-Oxford English Dictionary

In Chapter 7 of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, Lizzie Skurnick explores why girls in the 70’s and 80’s were drawn to supernatural stories, like almost all of Lois Duncan’s works that haunted library shelves. She gives numerous good reasons for this, among them that it’s fun to imagine being able to read minds, commune with animals and terrorize bullies with just a narrowing of the eyes. But I’d like to expand on Skurnick’s view that the general upheaval, changes, and development of puberty are why girls flocked to these books, and why there were so many supernatural books for them to flock to. I contend that books about girls entering puberty and acquiring supernatural powers are written, and voraciously read, because they are actually mythological. Whether they do it overtly or not (e.g., Stephen King’s Carrie), these books point to the blood of menstruation and its power.

The connection between menstruation and childbearing adds its quota of supernatural dread….

-M. Esther Harding, “Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient & Modern.”

In The Moon & The Virgin. psychologist and poet Nor Hall expounds on the connection between the moon, women’s intuitive function (the receptive, feeling, creative side or anima, found in both genders), and menses at length Throughout many cultures, the moon was seen as the ruler of women, its phases mimicking or controlling women’s menstruation cycles. It was also seen as the giver and controller of Earth’s fertility. In many early societies, and perhaps some modern ones, the moon’s connection to women and Earth imbued menstruating women with troublesome, or even supernatural powers. To regulate this power, menstruating women were regulated to huts and not allowed to cook, step over children or crops, or perform other tasks lest their menstrual blood interfere with or taint things.

People with runny noses do not hide their tissues from colleagues and family members. They do not die of embarrassment when they sneeze in public. Young girls do not cringe if a boy spies them buying a box of Kleenex. Caught without a hanky on a cold day, people sometimes use their sleeves; they are sheepish, but not humiliated. They do not blush or stammer or hide the evidence. No one celebrates congestion…those who suffer publicly—ah choo!—are casually blessed. It is, in essence, no big deal.
The same is not true of periods.

-Karen Houppert, “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation.”

The books from this chapter:

Ghosts I Have Been by Richard Peck
A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan
The Girl with the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts
Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan
Hangin’ Out with Cici by Francine Pascal
Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp
Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan

speak to us of a deep, ancestral part of us that believes menstrual blood, the language of the moon, and the cycles of life are potentially terrifying, and as such, necessarily occult–a hidden knowledge given only to the initiated. In these books, supernatural powers such as ESP and telekinesis are, like menstruation, both a curse and a blessing.

In the mundane world, our rational mind tells us that the biological machinations behind menstruation are as straightforward as the ones behind a sneeze. They’re not connected supernaturally to the moon like werewolves, witches and vampires. But dreamworld messages from ancestors say something quite different. These messages, however oblique, have been and continue to be disseminated through the fictions written down by our modern authors.

copyright Sarah Caflisch, 2012. All rights reserved.

Uh Oh

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Since I’m going to host a summer reading project here, I should probably do some straightening up, like getting a new theme since the old one broke (*sniff*) and taking off the outdated book list.

Probably should have considered this beforehand.

This Might Be Irony

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

But it might only be irony is the Alanis Morissette aspect, in which it’s just fitting, thought it’s not sucky.

I started blogging nearly 10 years ago over at Blogspot to increase my writing practice, which was sporadic at best. I didn’t yet have a kid, though I did have a full-time job as a copyeditor. Over the next few years, I wrote a bad novel, had a kid, resigned that job, moved, had another kid, survived a prolonged bout of post-partum despression, and hung around long enough that Kid 2, Guppy, started kindergarten last fall.

Over the past 10 years, I wrote a few things that got published in obscure places. I’ve revised that novel several times. (I’m _still_ working on it.) I started writing for my grocery store, the Eastside Food Co-op’s newsletter about food and wellness. Based on that I got a gig writing for a local-food website Simple Good and Tasty. Then I got a gig writing about kids and food for Minnesota Monthly’s food blog.

Over the past year, blogging here has gotten less and less frequent. I realized just this morning that it’s because I’m doing so much other writing. So the blog I started 10 years ago has resulted in a regular writing practice. (NB: not a lucrative writing practice, alas.) So regular, in fact, that I rarely have time for the practice that led up to this regularity. Huh.

I’m not saying I’m going to stop blogging. It’s a hard habit to break. (Apologies to you if that puts the Chicago tune in your head.) But it may help me stop feeling so bad for how infrequently I post nowadays, compared to those early, kidless, gigless years. It’s a higher class of problem, or a nice problem to have, as friends of mine might say.

The Feminine Face of God?

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

At the Telegraph, an article that has many commenters’ undies in a twist, “Bettany Hughes: who knows whether God is a girl?

Bettany Hughes, an expert in ancient history, claimed that Christianity “was originally a faith where the female of the species held sway”.

To oppose the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England is to deny the central role women played in the foundations of the faith, said Hughes.

“By suppressing the true story of the connection between women and religion, we etiolate both history and the possibilities of our own world,” she wrote in Radio Times.

The Telegraph piece shoots itself in the foot by including an inflammatory bit at the end about another scholar’s thesis that Jesus was a hermaphrodite.

And while “God as girl” makes a good sound bite, I’d prefer female or woman or feminine or something less childish.

Seriously, though, the tradition of world religions had male war deities paired with female fertility and wisdom deities. Then that changed. Haven’t you ever wondered why?

(Link from The Morning News)

Weighty Matters

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

I’ve been thinking about weight, lately. Sometime within the last weeks, something prompted me to write about it. Now I can’t remember what that was. Perhaps it will come to me as I write. But in any case, weight.

(Maybe it was watching the Oscars and thinking Angelina and Rose Byrne needed to eat more?)

In Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I recommend, in the section “Remembrances of Being Very Very Skinny” she writes,

For a brief time at the turn of the century, I was very skinny.

Funny anecdotes ensue, then she finishes:

We should leave people alone about their weight. Being skinny for a while (provided you actually eat food and don’t take pills or smoke to get there) is a perfectly fine pastime. Everyone should try it once, like a super-short haircut or dating a white guy.

The next section, “Remembrances of Being a Little Bit Fat” starts

For a brief time at the end of that last century I was over-weight.

Funny anecdotes ensue, then she finishes:

We should leave people alone about their weight. Being chubby for a while (provided you don’t give yourself diabetes) is a natural phase of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Like puberty or slowly turning into a Republican.

The Tina Fey comments reminded me of something I’m pretty sure I read in O. Which is a better magazine than you might think if you just recoiled, and for better or worse, I’m the demographic. Anyhoo, an article about weight suggested charting your weight’s peaks and valleys over your life and noting how your life was at that time, and how your life probably isn’t at the same point it was when you were your skinniest, and may never get there again. If you read the sections in Bossypants, Tina Fey says pretty much the same thing with anecdotal evidence.

(Wait, maybe is was how I went to a party a couple weeks ago and got many compliments on how good I looked, and wondered if it was because I’d lost sudden weight after just coming off the stomach flu.)

So, in my life, in the middle of the 00’s, I was skinny. For pretty much the first time in my life. I went to a doctor because I had some bumps under my skin and she said, “Those are lymph nodes. Most people can’t feel them but you can because you’re so skinny.” I didn’t feel skinny. People would tell me that I was and I wouldn’t believe them. It was only years later, as I gave away the clothes I wore during that period (goodbye, size 6 Long N Lean jeans), or saw pictures of myself from that time, that I could acknowledge, yep, I was skinny.

At the time, my husband and were DINKs: double income, no kids. I went to a power yoga class about 3 times a week. We lived half a mile from our jobs, so we walked to work. I didn’t eat gluten, because a holistic chiropracter told me I shouldn’t, so I was extremely mindful of what I did eat.

(Maybe I was thinking about weight after I walked into the boys’ room in the morning to tell them to get dressed. I had on a shirt and underwear, but no pants. 6yo Guppy pointed at me and said, with delight in his voice, “Fat legs!”)

A funny thing was, around this time, I went to visit a friend of mine who had also lost a lot of weight. She looked lovely. Yet I thought she’d looked better before, and was reminded of one of my favorite scenes in Bridget Jones’ diary, when she finally loses the weight she obsesses over, puts on the LBD, goes and out and all her friends ask if she is ill. Maybe losing weight isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

In the wake of Guppy’s birth, I became generally depressed and anxious. As my crack team of medical professionals tinkered with this and that solution, I first lost a bunch of weight then gained it back after a med switch. When we reversed the switch, I thought I’d lose the weight again, and said so to my doctor.

She laughed, not unkindly. “Welcome to 40, honey,” she said, with sympathy. And I’ve been pretty steady since then, back at the same point I was for a long time in my 30s. Rounder than I’d like, but within the bounds of health.

(The most likely answer is that I was reacting to something I read on Sally McGraw’s excellent blog, Already Pretty, because last week was body image warrior week.)

I don’t own a scale. For a long time, I didn’t have a full-length mirror. I don’t obsess about my weight, yet there are still times when it bothers me, like when I have to hop up and down to get in a pair of newly washed jeans.

My point, and I do have one, is that it’s complicated, isn’t it? I wish I were without judgment, for myself and others, and while that judgment has softened over time, it’s not gone. Perhaps I can just aspire to Fey’s words: “We should just leave people alone about their weight” and include myself with that, then recognize when I fail, pick myself up and start over again, possibly a bit wiser. That’s life in general, though, isn’t it?

Willpower and Decision Making

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

There have been several articles in recent months on willpower and decision making, all of which have intrigued me. This is from “Why willpower matters – and how to get it” at The Guardian, link via The Morning News

Baumeister’s big idea, now borne out by hundreds of ingenious experiments in his and other social psychologists’ labs, is that willpower – the force by which we control and manage our thoughts, impulses and emotions and which helps us persevere with difficult tasks – is actually rather like a kind of moral muscle.

I recently gave up my morning toaster pastry, and I’m still pretty bitter about it. But perhaps I’ll be a better person for it since I’m applying considerable willpower every time I pass them in the grocery.

How to Watch a Film

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Casper Newbolt’s advice on how to watch a film from “The Rules” at IFP, link via The Morning News:

The Rules make absolutely no prejudice, they allow you to love anything you want, but simply ask that you think for yourself.

I’ll be thinking on this one for a while. I try very hard to determine whether a movie or book will be worth my time before I go see it so I break Rule 1, which is

Go into the film without having read or watched anything. Trailers are acceptable, as they are sometimes created by film directors themselves, though even that sometimes is questionable.

Yet some of my favorite viewing experiences have been films I had no knowledge or expectations about, such as Short Cuts and Shadowlands.

Free Will, Free Won’t, or Nothing’s Free?

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

From USA Today, and accessible yet provocative column, “Why You Don’t Really Have Free Will” (via The Morning News)

The debate about free will, long the purview of philosophers alone, has been given new life by scientists, especially neuroscientists studying how the brain works. And what they’re finding supports the idea that free will is a complete illusion.

Apparently I’m not really deciding whether go to the coffee shop today, or anything else. I’ll be mulling over this for a while.

Fashion and Culture: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

I’ve been thinking on Kurt Andersen’s Vanity Fair article “You Say You Want a Devolution? From Fashion to Housewares, Are We in a Decades-Long Design Rut?” for a few days now, and the ideas in it linger:

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.

Additionally, this cartoon from XKCD on traditional Christmas music is along the same lines–we’ve been playing the same stuff for decades.

And Dan Kois’ New York Times essay “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” on art that’s good but boring makes sense in this conversation too.

I don’t have any conclusions, but these continue to lurk and make me think.

Where to Begin?

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

I am woefully out of the writing and blogging habit. The boys have been in school for almost a month now, and only now do I begin to see glimmers of what a balanced routine at home might look like. I keep getting waylaid by the housewifery. I’ve learned to live with ever-increasing levels of dirt and clutter in order to maximize time for reading and writing, but the bill has come due now that I’m home while the kids are at school.

And this mess is so big
And so deep and so tall
[I] can not pick it up.
There is no way at all! (Cat in the Hat)

I don’t do well with a lack of structure, and I tend to treat deadlines as starting points. Time to change. Create structure, albeit one that bends. Respect deadlines. Read, write, rest, exercise, clean, organize, cook, eat. It’s not complicated unless I insist on making it so.

Modern Racism

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

From “Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race” by Jen Graves, from The Stranger:

Every conversation about race is tortured—palpably awkward, loaded with triggers, marked by the blind spots of perception and presumption—but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong or should stop doing it, says Scott Winn. That means you have to keep on.

“Once I realized I was racist, it was, well, what am I going to do about it?” says Winn, a mild-mannered white guy in his 30s. “That shifts the defensiveness.”

Ego Depletion and Decision Fatigue

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Two recent articles that have me thinking:

From “The Sugary Secret of Self Control” by Steven Pinker, a NYT book review of Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. via Arts and Letters Daily

In experiments first reported in 1998, Baumeister and his collaborators discovered that the will, like a muscle, can be fatigued. Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry… — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles… Baumeister tagged the effect “ego depletion,” using Freud’s sense of “ego” as the mental entity that controls the passions.

Baumeister then pushed the muscle metaphor even further by showing that a depleted ego can be invigorated by a sugary pick-me-up (though not an indistinguishable beverage containing diet sweetener). And he showed that self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it.

And from “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue” by John Tierney, also in the NYT and also via ALD:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

Edited to add this article, “The Willpower Circuit“, from Wired:

Mischel has also helped redefine willpower. While we typically think of willpower as a matter of gritting our teeth and outlasting the temptation – staring down the marshmallow, so to speak – Mischel realized that this assumption was backwards. Instead, the ability of delay gratification depended on the “strategic allocation of attention,” a fancy way of saying that some kids know how to distract themselves. Instead of obsessing over the marshmallow – the “hot stimulus” – these patient children covered their eyes or looked away. Their desire wasn’t defeated – it was merely forgotten. “Kids who can delay gratification have a much more realistic understanding of willpower,” Mischel told me. “They know that willpower is very limited. If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it. The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.” There is, of course, something unsettling about this new model of willpower, since it assumes the utter weakness of the will. Resistance is only possible when we’re not actively trying to resist. (emphasis mine)

End of Summer

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Summer doesn’t officially end till mid-September, but my older, Drake, starts 2nd grade tomorrow, and Guppy starts kindergarten on Wednesday, so today was really it for the season.

It’s been a long crazy summer with several car and home repairs, a family trip, some health issues that have been addressed, swim lessons, soccer, day camp and I’m sure there was more in there. Nothing serious.

Here’s what I thought I’d do this summer: get to the bottom of the mending pile. Clean the whole house at least once. Stop the thistles in the backyard. Read about half again as many books as I did. Catch up with friends. Ride my bike a lot.

Didn’t happen. I darned a few socks. Cleaned a little here and there. Read some books, saw some movies, hung out with friends and rode the bike, though not nearly as much as I’d hoped. I did my best, and will try to let go of all the rest that didn’t happen.

I’m not sure how to make next summer less crazy than this one. Do less stuff isn’t necessarily the answer. Unless I kept my boys occupied, they fought. And one or both ended up crying. Not fun for anyone. There’s got to be something between exhaustion and pugilism, right?

“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.