The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

Handmaid's Tale
“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”


(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)


The Age of Miracles

“We were, on that day, no different from the ancients: terrified of our own big sky.”  The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles book cover


An estimated 25,000 people in Rochester, New York, are reading Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. Karen is currently in Rochester for three days visiting schools, libraries, and universities as part of the Writers and Books- sponsored “If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book 2015.”

Karen Thompson WalkerYesterday, I had the pleasure of attending one of Karen’s readings at a local college, which was well attended by book lovers and book clubs alike. Many of the attendees have participated in “If All of Rochester Reads” since its inception 15 years ago.

The Age of Miracles is a heart-breaker. After this one, I am going to have to lay off reading dystopian literature for a while.

Eleven-year-old Julia is living the ups and downs of a California childhood when, one day, this announcement is all over the new: scientists have learned the Earth’s rotation has slowed. The days and nights are growing longer and will most likely continue to do so. Life on Earth will never be the same. It is, in fact, very likely coming to an end, and “not with a bang, but with a whimper,” as Karen has said in an interview.

The world slows down with terrible consequences, while Julia copes with difficult friendships and betrayals, falls in love with Seth, and watches the possible dissolution of her parents’ marriage. The Age of Miracles is adult fiction, but it has had great appeal in the young adult market. I’ve read excellent adult dystopian literature recently (The Bone Clocks and Station Eleven), books that offer hope for the redemption of humanity. There is little hope in The Age of Miracles, which is one reason it is so powerful: we watch the blossoming of youth and young love in a world that is going dark.

Climate change and global warming are being hotly debated in the real world, but in The Age of Miracles, the catastrophe has nothing to do with human action. It just happens. Because blame and controversy over who is at fault are removed, the story is free to focus on the characters and how they mature and make ethical choices (or don’t) in impossible circumstances.

Karen said during her reading yesterday that the title of her book refers to both the miraculous time of adolescence as well as the miracle of the earth’s slowing. The miracle in the world Karen creates is an extraordinary, inexplicable event, but in this case one that does not bode well for the human race. It suggests that we humans are not the center of this vast, unknowable universe; the universe can carry on quite well without us.

I found myself, like Julia, not wanting to turn back time, but wishing I could change the laws of nature and reinvent my relationship with time.

“How much sweeter it would be if life happened in reverse, if, after decades of disappointments, you finally arrived at an age when you conceded nothing, when everything was possible.”

Karen is at work on a second novel which will once again place people in an extreme situation.

Click here for a fascinating list of post-apocalyptic/dystopian/utopian/speculative fiction. Jose Saramago’s Blindness stunned me when I read it several years ago; I went on to read all of his other work and I hope to take another look it someday. Saramago’s writing is difficult – he writes page-long sentences with little punctuation – but if you fall under his spell, there is absolutely nothing like it. I haven’t read P.D. James’ The Children of Men, but I remember when my husband and sons and I watched the movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón – an afternoon of movie-going we’ll never forget. Nor will we forget reading aloud the final scenes of The Giver when the boys were young.

Then there’s The Hunger Games (the trilogy) and the ongoing excellent movie series. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another all-time favorite of mine. (He has a new book, The Buried Giant, a kind of apocalyptic fantasy I’ve yet to read). Nevil Shute’s On The Beach was probably one of my first exposures to apocalyptic fiction many years ago.

If you have strong opinions about any of the books or movies on this list, I’d loved to hear your comments.

If All of Rochester Reads has greatly enriched Rochester’s literary scene. I wrote about our 2014 choice, The Snow Child by Iowyn Ivey, which I loved. Another Rochester Reads favorite of mine is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Just so you know, Nancy Pearl, one of America’s greatest librarians, had the brainchild of an entire city reading the same book. She founded the program in Seattle and it has since been adopted by many cities.

Have you read The Age of Miracles? What/Who is your favorite dystopian novel or author? Does your city or town have an annual reading event?

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks book cover


“It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office–all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing–while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”   The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

I debated whether or not to write a post about The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. At least twice, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish reading it, but I’d already invested several hours in the book, so I kept on when the going got tough. In the end, I’m glad I finished The Bone Clocks. I think it’s worth writing about here, even though I don’t pretend to grasp its full meaning.

I’d picked up The Bone Clocks in the first place because it’s been called a genre-bending novel by a writer who’s reinventing fiction, so I wanted to find out what David Mitchell and his work is all about. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot of The Bone Clocks, which blends literary fiction with fantasy (not a genre I’m attracted to) and dystopian literature. There are six linked novella-type sections that take place in 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043 (with flashbacks to medieval and other times) in settings as diverse as Ireland, New York, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Australia, and Iceland.

Among the half a dozen or so featured characters, apparently a couple of them have appeared in Mitchell’s past novels, including Cloud Atlas, none of which I’ve read. Holly Sykes is the highly appealing central character, and she is largely what kept me going when I wanted to stop, although I found many of the other characters arresting as well.

The fantasy thread features Horologists, a select group of immortal people battling the evil Anchorites, who suck the souls from people to stay alive. “A Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the section of the novel fully devoted to the final battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites–by far the most irritating part of the book, for me. I don’t like fantasy to begin with, and this section seemed to be poorly written, especially considering the brilliance of the rest of the book, although one critic pointed out we’re not to view it as serious fantasy, but rather a tongue-in-cheek portrayal.

I’m not even sure I understand why the fantasy element is present, though I know Mitchell sees it as central to his theme. The bone clocks are mortal and often foolish humans who inevitably age, decline, and die; they are contrasted with the brilliant, wise and immortal Horologists. I refer you to critics and reviewers in the mainstream publications who do a much better job of “figuring out” The Bone Clocks, especially if you’re interested in finding out more about the fantasy elements. Much of this aspect of the novel is simply over my head.

I’m not familiar with British and Irish slang from the 1980s, and so getting started was difficult–the first section depicts Holly as a runaway teenager from a working class English town. Despite all these difficulties, the The Bone Clocks marathon has a tremendous momentum, and for long sections I was riveted. Here, I want to focus on the dystopian final section of the book.

What an incredible life journey Holly Sykes has, but its end is devastating. Mitchell’s version of dystopia, while not especially original or inventive, is nonetheless disturbing. It is the time of the Endarkenment. Humanity is on its last legs. Holly knows one big storm is all it will take to finish off her rural Irish village. She’s living in poverty, with little food, minimal electricity and no internet, in a world ruled by the Chinese and a society that has all but disintegrated.

I read The Bone Clocks during a long, record-breaking deep freeze. Boston, where life seems to have stopped, is in dire straits: snow removal costs have gone over budget by millions, people can’t get to work, schools are closed, businesses are suffering, and the subway system is all but shut down.

We live in a country where many people do not believe in climate change or evolution or vaccines.

My Ohio hometown is a shadow of its former self, mired in poverty and crime. The governor boasts about balancing the state budget, but at the expense of towns starved for funds.

A member of my family is getting expensive medical treatment that, if not for insurance, would mean bankruptcy. And yet, many of our government leaders are determined to take affordable health insurance away from millions of poor and middle class families.

I went to a grocery store yesterday that had only two clerks at the check-out. At the dozen or so self-check-out stations, customers struggled with an automated system that doesn’t work. The store was crowded with people wanting to stock up during the bad weather but, according to the wonderful check-out clerk who helped me, the management would not call for extra help. God forbid this large grocery chain cut into its profits to gainfully employ a few more people or, at least, make sure the stores are adequately staffed.

Could we someday find ourselves in our own Endarkenment? Are we headed in that direction? In The Bone Clocks, when the Endarkenment came, it came fast.

The Bone Clocks isn’t an easy read. If you’re intrigued, if you like challenges, if you want a taste of cutting edge fiction by one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, then go for it.

Have you read The Bone Clocks? What do you think of dystopian fiction? Do you see parallels with our current state of affairs, or do you think that’s taking dystopian fiction too seriously?

By the way, you’ll notice a Henrietta Public Library sticker on the cover of The Bone Clocks in the photo above. I want to give a shout out to Henrietta Public Library, which is wonderful, and its dynamic director, Adrienne Furness, who was on the 2015 Caldecott Medal Selection Committee.