Archive for the '2007 Goals' Category

Shelves as the Windows to the Soul?

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

From “Shelf Conscious,” by Francesca Mari at The Paris Review, not so much a review as a broad overview/appreciation/personal musing over Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price, via The Morning News:

My boyfriend was ruthless. He chucked a book if he thought it’d be easy enough to get again for a dollar. ….

I’ve always felt an obligation to keep any book with which I’ve had some sort of relationship, even if it was an insignificant one–an assignment for a short review, for instance.

My husband is a hoarder. I’m a purger, perhaps because I’m a binger with a well-developed sense of buyers’ remorse. We’ve reached a sort of equipoise where I can get rid of some books, and I’ll store others instead of getting rid of them. Thus far, we have enough room to do this.

I simply CANNOT imagine not having organized shelves. Bizarre. That being said, organizing books is crazy and involves weird personal decisions, such as: most of my graphic novels are organized by title (e.g., Sandman by Gaiman is under S), except when they’re organized by author (anything by James Kochalka is under K). Other books are in 2 main groups by size: MMPB get their own shelves as I have bookcases well suited for their short selves. And then TPB and HCs get bigger shelves, but both groups are separated into read/unread.

What I believe my shelves say about me: I believe in organization, and succeed to some degree at a macro level but fail at a micro level, then just start stacking books here and there. Which is pretty much how I manage life.

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.

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.

“Momofuku Milk Bar” by Christina Tosi

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

I waited a while on the reserve list at the library to get the Momofuku Milk Bar baking book by the chef at the famous NYC bakery. I was excited to try some of the recipes.

Till I read them. I paged through the entire book, and think I found two that didn’t include glucose, or other odd ingredients like corn powder. This is a book that doesn’t translate well for this home chef, who doesn’t want to go anywhere special or online for special ingredients, or use corn syrup or glucose rather than cane sugar.

Next time I’m in NYC, though, I’m totally visiting. The stories, photos, and baked goods are stunning.

Russell Hoban

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Russell Hoban died earlier this month. I read his books about Frances the badger and the out-of-print Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas when I was a child. I read them now to my own children. I watched the Emmet Otter muppet adaptation with my family earlier this month. This lesser-known holiday special was written up both at NPR and the Onion AV Club this year.. I read Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child to my sons earlier this year. And I finally read his cult classic, Riddley Walker, which has now become one of the first books I think about when some book/movie/comic trots out an apocalyptic trope. Hoban’s books have been and are so important to me. I’m sad for his passing, but will continue to celebrate his weird, lovely and wide-spanning works. Via.

St. Crispin’s Day

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Every year Mental Multivitamin reminds us of St. Crispin’s Day, October 25th, and of its central role in the battle speeches of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Every year I watch the video of that speech, am moved to tears, and am glad for the reminder of Branah’s Henry V, which was my gateway into both film and Shakespeare.

In early 1990, I was trying to clean up my act, having gotten into no little trouble from partying too much. One Friday night, a friend invited me to see Henry V at an arthouse theater in DC* where it was showing on a giant screen. At 2 hours and 17 minutes, the run time had me worried. I suspected I’d be bored, but also figured it was better than the alternative, which was staying home in baggy sweats to study. I got my treat of choice for that era**, a small Sprite and a box of Milk Duds. I remember it was a particularly fresh box. The chocolate-coated caramels were soft and gooey, not hard and stale.

“Fresh off the Dud tree,” my friend joked.

The movie began, and drew me in immediately:

O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention; A kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Then should the war-like Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars; and at his heels, Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire crouch for employment.

There was the tennis ball scene. And the scene with his friends at the bar. And so 2 hours and 17 minutes flew by. I didn’t know history. I had no idea the English would win, or the historical significance of those long bows. I wasn’t familiar with Shakespeare. I didn’t always track the language, and had no idea what a stellar cast I was watching: Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm. Even the rookies: Branagh as actor/director, his then-wife Emma Thompson, Christin Bale! And oh,that courtship scene:

King Henry V: Fair Katherine, if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue. Do you like me, Kate?

Princess Katherine: [unable to understand his English] Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell what is ‘like me’.

King Henry V: An angel is like you, Kate.

Sweet, romantic, funny, a perfect antidote to the grisly battle scenes. I loved that movie, and went to see it again. And again. And again. A total of four times at that theater; it ran for months, first on the large screen then on the small. I bought a copy of the play and read it. I bought the film on VHS, then bought it again years later on DVD. I will probably buy it yet again on Bluray. Since then I’ve seen the play and many others, on film and on stage. I’ve read many of the plays and wrote papers on them in graduate school. Twenty plus years later, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when that film, films in general, and works of Shakespeare weren’t part of my life. And every year I am reminded of that on St. Crispin’s Day by Mental Multivitamin. Thank you.


After I read this year’s MMv entry, I had a proud moment: 8yo Drake is supposed to practice handwriting every day for 15 minutes. He hates it. He moans. He flops. He procrastinates and generally makes us all miserable. I showed him the video of the speech, then opened up a copy of Henry V for Young People, which I’d hopefully bought several years ago. He moaned. He groaned. He started to copy the speech. At nine minutes he asked how much time he’d done, then banged his head on the table when I told him. But then, he got it. He got into that speech, and copied the whole thing out, and didn’t even notice when he blazed by the 15 minute mark to finish after 21 minutes. I wish I could say every writing practice since has gone as well. No dice. But for that one, brief shining moment, I could share that little thing with him, and that was more than enough.

*I think it was the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle, since closed, which was north of Georgetown on Wisconsin Ave.

**My current favorite treat is a dozen spice drops mixed into popcorn with real butter with either water or a Mug or Sprecher root beer.

Teetering Pile of Guilty Pleasure #3

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Last weekend was the Rain Taxi Twin Cities Book Fest, one of my favorite events of the year. I go, I listen to authors, meet authors, chat with friends, make some new ones. For this reader and writer, it’s just one more reason I love the Twin Cities.

Oh, and did I mention, there are books for sale?

Books from Rain Taxi Book Fest '11

Lord of Misrule
by Jaimy Gordon (because Festival Director gushed about her, and because it won the National Book Award and was a selection of the Morning News Tournament of Books, and because I liked the excerpt she read from it.)

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber (because a woman in the audience said she led retreats on the book and it always provoked great responses, and because I liked what she read from her current book.)

Winters Bone
by Daniel Woodrell (because the Festival Director gushed, because I really liked the movie based on it, because I liked the excerpt he read from his current book. Unrelated but cool: he served on Guam in ‘70 to 71; I lived there ‘72 to ‘74.)

Whose Hand? by Judith Yates Borger (because she’s in my writing group and I saw this book from beginning to publication)

Get In If You Want to Live
by John Jodzio (because it’s a cool little book with illustrated flash fiction, and because he’s funny, and my neighbor)

White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby (because I really liked her reading of it, and both she and Diana Abu-Jaber talked about food in fiction, which I’m working on, too.)

Thus ends of the recent book bender. I hope to spend a lot of time reading. Soon.

Links to come.

Teetering Pile of Guilty Pleasure #2

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

From the library:

Library books

The Year We Left Home
by Jean Thompson (because it was well reviewed and had a long wait at the library, I thought for sure whenever it came in I’d have time to read it. And have read her book of short stories that’s been on my shelves for years. YEARS. Sigh.)

Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff (because in the last month I’ve strained my trapezius muscle, something in the middle back, and something in the leg area. I grow old, I grow old and I thought I’d try to figure out what’s going on where.)

Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce (because I want to try the chocolate chip cookie recipe again, and didn’t get enough time with it when I got it out of the library the last time.)

Perfect One-Dish Dinners by Pamela Anderson. (I’ve been a fan of Anderson’s since way back when she wrote for Cook’s Illustrated, and her chocolate chip cookie recipe is the one I turn to. I was hoping for inspiration for fall dinners, but this is more geared to a group and is very meat heavy, though it does have many good-looking recipes and alternatives.)

by Joyce Chang (because I didn’t get to spend enough time with it when I got it out last time. Both this and Good to the Grain were recommended by Jennifer Reese on Tipsy Baker.)

Links to come.

Teetering Piles of Guilty Pleasure #1

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

I’ve been buying books again. With all good intentions. Do you think I can have all these books be the very next one I read?

I suppose it could be worse. It’s not crack, heroin or meth, right? I may have to post these in a series, as everything online is either not working or working slowly. And Mercury’s not even in retrograde!

Bought Books--various

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler
by E L Konigsburg (I got this for 8yo Drake, hopeful he’s old enough and up for it)
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (The last recommendation for me from The Biblioracle at The Morning News)
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese, who blogs at Tipsy Baker
The Finder Library v. 2 by Carla Speed McNeil. (One of my favorite comic series, collected in a lovely new edition. Why, no, I still haven’t finished v. 1. Your point?)
Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods v. 1 by Jeff Lemire (An answer to my question of “what’s good that I’m not reading” from 2nd in command C at Big Brain Comics)

More to come…

Iconic Films?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

From “North by Nostalgia: Remember It Was Never Easy To Be Alfred Hitchcock,” by Linda Holmes at MPR

It was never easy to be Alfred Hitchcock, or everybody would have done it. It was never easy to be Cary Grant, or Eva Marie Saint. The crop-duster sequence wasn’t always an iconic piece of filmmaking; it began as someone’s idea. Filming the long, largely silent sequence that leads up to it wasn’t simply a product of the time; it was a product of creative effort that can’t be reduced to a dusty recollection of when people magically knew how to do things better than they do now.

Is there a modern movie that can hold a candle to North by Northwest? Linda mentions The King’s Speech being memorable for 2010, and while I enjoyed that film, I think it was an entertainment, not a great film. What are some great and lasting films from the last decade or so? For some reason, late at night, The Matrix is the only one that leaps to mind.

One of My Favorite Girl Detectives

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Over at Elizabeth Kushner writes about Shadow of a Doubt, perhaps my favorite Hitchcock movie, in “Noir Comes to Main Street

But this is noir, no doubt about it. All the thematic elements are here: doubleness, dark secrets, stolen fortunes, femmes fatales (or their simulacrums), and even the requisite shadows through curtains. That the curtains are ruffled and filmy, the shadows barely noticeable unless you’re looking for them, is part of the point: just as the title hints, there are shadows aplenty in the world of Shadow of a Doubt. It’s just that no one wants to see them.

I’m not sure I agree that it’s noir, since it’s a little early for that genre, plus the gender roles are reversed. (not unlike how they are in David Mamet’s House of Cards) but it is a sweet little black and white thriller, with a smart, capable, strong teen heroine. If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.

Book Bender

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

I’ve bought a lot of books lately. Starting my own book group has meant I need to buy copies of things I want to audition, right? Plus there are my other two book groups. And thus, this tower.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (because I want to read his second, and thus want to read his first, first.)
Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (someone recommended it for my religion/mythic fiction book group)
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (ditto above)
Purple Hibiscus by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie (because a friend said she loved it)
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (rec. for book group)
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (because my recent reads of Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse made me want to re-read this)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (because I’m reading Mrs. Dalloway for the upcoming myth/religion book group)
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (rec for book group, local author)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Adichie (next selection of my women’s book group)
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov, ed. Burgin and O’Connor (likely the November myth book group book. This translation was the one that seemed to have the most love)
Lonely Polygamist by Bradley Udall (for Books and Bars)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Foer (September pick for myth book group)
Jane Eyre by Bronte, Penguin edition with cover by Ruben Toledo. (I collect editions of this, and loved this one so much I couldn’t leave the store without it.) Details of this one below.

Toledo Jane Eyre cover

Toledo inside front gaatefold cover Jane Eyre

Toledo Jane Eyre back cover

Toledo Jane Eyre back cover and gatefold cover

(sorry no links; too tired. maybe later)

Summer Reading List

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Inspired by the reading lists at The Algonquin Books Blog, (via The Morning News) I am updating my summer reading plan. Remember how I wrote I was going to do a summer reading project, going through Lizzie Skurnick’s book Shelf Discovery, and reading a bunch of the books she mentioned in it?

Yeah, that’s not going to happen. For good reason, though. I continue to read in preparation for the book group I started, on fiction with themes of myth and religion. Our June book was Louise Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (I look forward to the day I no longer have to type that title all the time). It made me want to go back to Love Medicine and read everything she’s written, though I’m not going to right now.

The July book is American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which coincides nicely with its 10th anniversary (will I be able to resist buying the 10th anniversary edition, as I already own a signed HC and a MMPB?) and the recent announcement that it’s getting the HBO treatment. Related reading I hope to do along with American Gods is the sequel, Anansi Boys, and Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, which my husband says is very like it. (Does that mean reading Dirk Gently again?) Possibly also D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths.

The August book is Mrs. Dalloway, and I picked up a copy of The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, so I hope to make it through that. Related reading with be Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I hope.

Right now I’m re-reading Warren Ellis’ Planetary, that ended last year. I didn’t want to read the final issue until I re-read from the beginning, so here I am. I also plan to do this with the crime series 100 Bullets. And I mentioned recently that I’m interested in going back to the beginning of Carla Speed McNeil’s series Finder and re-reading up to the present.

So I’ve got an ambitious reading list, though the only Musts are American Gods and Mrs. Dalloway.

I am trying not to attend to the voice inside my head that says she wants to re-read Game of Thrones. There will be plenty of time for that. If I’m smart, I’ll wait till he finishes the series (no jokes or snarking allowed), see how folks like the ending, then decide whether to give it a go.

What do you hope to read this summer?

Re-Thinking Ferris

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

From “Get Over ‘Ferris Bueller,’ Everyone” at The Atlantic:

I grew up in a place not unlike Ferris’s tony North Shore suburb. Naturally, I dreamed about cutting class and zipping around Chicago in a 1961 Ferrari 250GT California. I’m just not sure every kid shared, or even had the means to share, my fantasy. This is the myth of Ferris Bueller. It’s portrayed as a universal story, when it’s really not.

I’m a fan of the late John Hughes, but Alan Siegel makes some strong points about why this movie should be more troubling than revered.

Via The Morning News

Artistic Envelopes

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Via Bookmoot, a collection of at The Guardian of envelopes by children’s book illustrators to their publisher. I especially love the Satoshi Kitamura ones, as he’s a favorite of mine. This is an image based on his UFO Diary:


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.

Book Bender(s)

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Good thing I decided I wasn’t going to make any more silly vows about not buying or borrowing books before I read the ones at home, right?


From Half-Price Books, St. Louis Park. I went in looking for Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I left with these:

Count Zero by William Gibson. Reading the Bigend trilogy made me want to go back and read everything by Gibson.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I chose this for my book group on fiction with religious and mythic themes. I have a signed HC of this, so I wanted a beater copy to re-read. )(There’s a 10th anniversary HC out this June. Ten years? I remember going to Dreamhaven to hear him read from this.)

Farmer Boy and Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Because I’m brainstorming a new summer reading project of Lizzie Skurnick’s Shelf Discovery and all the books she references in it (yeah, it’s about 70, so what?), one of which is Farmer Boy. I meant to get Little _House_ on the Prairie, since we already have Little House in the Big Woods, but got “Town” instead. Ah, well, guess I’ll just have to go shopping again. Heh.

Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume. Both are referenced in Shelf Discovery.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. His follow-up to American Gods.

Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman. Recommended to me ages ago by my friend Rock Hack. I really enjoyed the recent interview with Goodman at Bookslut, especially this:

Really good fiction operates on you more like a slow poison — in a good way. It enters your bloodstream and changes the way that you look at the world without your realizing it.

God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam. Because I _loved_ Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and The People on Privilege Hill.

But that is not all, oh no, that is not all!


On Rue Tatin
by Susan Hermann Loomis. From my mother, since my dad and sisters just returned from vacation in Normandy.

Super Natural Every Day
by Heidi Swanson. Because I like her site, 101 Cookbooks, and her other book, Super Natural Cooking.

Continuing with the wretched excess, here’s what I have out from the library:


Riddley Walker
by Russell Hoban. Which I’m reading now because a friend said her friend recommended it over The Road. It’s future slang is difficult to wade through, but I’m loving the main character, and will persevere. I think it will pay off.

The Death of Adam
by Marilynne Robinson. I wanted to read this in the wake of Gilead. Many challenging essays on a variety of literary and religious topics, I’m reading one at a time between other books. Many are a defense of Calvin and Puritanism.

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood. Research in the wake of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms ed. by Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, and Margaret Atwood: A Biography by Natalie Cooke. Ditto above.

Younger Next Year for Women by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge. Recommended by a friend in book group. Premise is that sitting tells your body to decay, moving keeps it young and strong.

The Yoga Body Diet by Kristen Schultz Dollard and Dr. John Douillard. Recommended in Yoga Journal, it sounded like a good, albeit pop-y, intro to Ayurveda. I thought I was Pitta, but am Vata instead. I’m so not a Kapha.

Oh, did you think that was all? Bwah, ha ha!


The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. Marilynne Robinson says the Puritans weren’t so bad. Margaret Atwood says they were intolerant and wanted a theocracy. Who to believe? I’m going to re-read Vowell, who I think falls more on the Robinson side of the debate.

Unwritten volume 3. An ongoing series about a Harry Potter-ish character that plays fast and loose with many layers of fiction.

Fables volume 15: Rose Red. Another of the ongoing comic-book series I read in collections, since I tend to forget things when I read them in monthly installments.

And with that, gentle readers, I am going off to nurse my wrist. WAY too many links in this one.

Favorite Things!

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Or, what I did instead of writing and napping.

Shopped at Barnes & Noble Galleria (but didn’t buy anything.)

Shopped at Half Price Books in St. Louis Park (um, did buy some stuff; book stack photo to come)

Lunch of mushroom stroganoff with tofu drizzled with Sriracha sauce at Noodles and Co.

Double of Clusterfluff (Peanut Butter Ice Cream with Caramel Cluster Pieces, Peanut Butter & Marshmallow Swirls) and Chocolate Therapy (Chocolate ice cream with chocolate cookies and swirls of chocolate pudding) at Ben & Jerry’s, plus they were having a 3-fer sale:


It’s not the hubby who’s going to get chubby around here, it’s me.

“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.)

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.