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?

AtwoodAutograph

“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.”)

 

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”

And,

“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

And,

“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.

Tasting Home – Judith Newton on cooking, coming of age, feminism

“…cookbooks were more to me than a reflection of my past. They’d been agents of my recovery – from childhood misery, from profound self-loss, from my fear, even as an adult, that the world would never seem like home. I’d cooked from them to save my life, and I’d succeeded.”

In her newly published memoir, writer and historian Judith Newton looks at her own life and the culture of her time, from the 1940s to the 2000s. Along the way she writes of the cookbooks and cuisine that fed her in body and spirit.

I can’t say enough good things about Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen I just loved it. Judith writes of her difficult early childhood in Compton, California, of coming of age at Stanford and Berkeley in the 1960s, and of her beautiful and haunting relationship with her husband, Dick. I found Judith to be especially eloquent in describing her intellectual and spiritual awakening and continual growth.

As a young girl, I watched the 1960s unfold mostly on television and in newspapers and magazines. Reading Judith’s memoir, for me, was like hearing stories from an older sister who actually lived those events.

And the food! Judith includes childhood recipes inherited from her parents and the land they lived on (Death Valley Date Nut Bread, for example) and recipes from influential and groundbreaking cookbooks of the day, such as Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, et al., and The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne. (Moosewood Cookbook is another classic Judith knows well. See a previous post with an excerpt from Tasting Home.) Throughout her memoir, Judith speaks of the joy, fulfillment, and healing power of cooking and sharing meals with loved ones.

Here is part 1 of an interview with Judith. Watch for part 2 in my next post. Thank you for talking with me and sharing your thoughts with us, Judith!

When I read your comment about cookbooks being an agent of your recovery, I realized I view books and music in the same way. I’m sure many of your readers have had a beloved pastime that got them through tough times. Has reader response to Tasting Home borne this out? Did this theme resonate with those who supported you during the writing process?

Tasting Home book coverYes,  it did!  One woman in my writing group found release in jazz and in singing and  dancing. Another reader, Linda Joy Myers, who is herself a memoirist, writes of how she was sustained by the warmth of a music teacher, by the beauty of music, art, and the Midwestern plains. Several of my old colleagues at Davis found refuge in cooking and understood very well how a kitchen table can lay the groundwork for political community.

How did you come to believe the personal affects the political and society?

My years of teaching women’s studies had made me aware that the private and public spheres are dependent on each other and that the personal always informs the political. Traditionally, for example, women have fed, cared for, educated, and humanized members of their household including men, children, and the old.  This frequently invisible and unpaid labor is essential to having a society at all, and especially one that involves people working in cooperation with each other.

In writing a book that celebrates home cooking as a humanizing and healing kind of work, I  think of myself as carrying on a feminist project—that of giving value to a traditionally female,  often unseen, but essential form of labor, one that the political scientist Janet Flammang, in her book A Taste for Civilization, calls a preparation for civil society itself.

Another feminist project has been to show how political movements also depend on a kind of emotion work.  The sociologist Belinda Robnett,  for example, in her book How Long? How Long? African American Women and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes about how African American women worked behind the scenes during the Civil Rights Movement, meeting ordinary people, listening to their needs, and building face to face relations of friendship and trust. This emotion work was critical to the success of building a grassroots movement, and is critical to the success of present-day coalition as well. By demonstrating how cooking can bring people into connection with each other, not just in a domestic setting but in a political group as well, Tasting Home continues this project of linking the political to the personal and emotional.

Do you feel this healing through cooking helped you make a more meaningful contribution through your work?

Judith NewtonAbsolutely!  I learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement,  that a committed political life could and should involve “sensuality.”  “To be sensual,” Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.”

For me sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food.  Being able to access this joy in a daily way kept me going in every facet of my life and work, making it possible for me to retain the optimism that has informed my politics and my writing.  If I didn’t feel that optimism, I wouldn’t write at all.

Judith Newton is Professor Emerita in Women and Gender Studies at U.C. Davis. While at U.C. Davis she directed the Women and Gender Studies program for eight years and the Consortium for Women and Research for four.

Tasting Home is the recipient of a 2013 Independent Publisher Book Award.

In addition to Tasting Home, she is also the author and co-editor of five works of nonfiction on nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist criticism, women’s history, and men’s movements. Four of these were reprinted by Routledge and the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012. Currently, she writes for The Huffington Post.

The Stories We Tell

Speaking of memoir, this just-released family documentary directed by Sarah Polley looks so tantalizing, and it’s gotten rave reviews. There are a few trailers floating around but I like this one the best:  The Stories We Tell.

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