Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

I recently finished reading a digital edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and it is such an evocative, compelling book I ran out and bought the paperback so I could feel the weight of these words in my hand. I want to be able to reread this book, underline sentences, write notes in the margins, and simply savor the feel of its physicality while it is held within my hand.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and it is Atwood’s third book. I first heard about it nearly twenty years ago and was intrigued, but for one reason or another, I never picked it up. I think it was because I thought it would be a dense and dry book. I had seen the movie, and though Natasha Richardson’s Offred was an intriguing interpretation of a woman struggling to survive a newly-formed dystopian world pulled out of a misogynist’s deranged dream, the film was a stylized Hollywood vision of what such a world would look like. In other words, the book is told from Offred’s point of view, and as an oppressed woman confined to a solitary and bonded existence, most of what we are told is through her interior monologue. The movie does not use voice-overs, so the viewer is left to guess what Offred is thinking, feeling, and learning. She becomes an enigmatic character who spends most of the movie looking sad and beautiful and lacks even the agency to think. Even though it is her story, she has maybe as many lines as the rest of the characters. I think this cinematic decision – no voice-overs – is where the movie lacks the fierceness and complexity of the anger and loss experienced by an intelligent woman who was once free to control her fate.

But, I did not know this. I just knew that movie felt inadequate. So, fast-forward twenty years to the present, I decided to read the book after I heard Atwood was coming to the Boston Book Festival. I’m glad I did.

It is the story of Offred – literary Of Fred, the commander she has been given to as handmaid because his wife – like many of the women – is infertile. Offred is the epitome of society’s greatest dilemma: what to do with their girls and women. Even today, all over the world, women are still held as society’s measure of honor and piety. In The Handmaid’s Tale, this perception has become one of Gilead’s (the newly formed country within northeast America) foundational tenants; women exist to bear children and serve men and their society. Rich women become wives; poor, infertile women become marthas or domestic workers, and all the other women who can bear children – and who can be controlled – become handmaids to childless families to provide them with babies.

The Handmaid’s Tale is masterfully written, as a master prose writer would be. It is eloquent and imaginative and politically astute. The issues and fears surrounding women’s rights that are brought to a living horror in this book are still evident 30 years its publication. ISIS, Boko Haram, the pro-choice-pro-life debate, all these groups and issues – and more – demonstrate how women are still reduced to their biological functions in hellish ways. As the gender that bears children, women have literally become the incubators for the men. The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly a feminist book, but it is also a tale of how a society crumbles when one-half of the population is oppressed and suppressed for the betterment of the other half, be it gender-based, wealth-based, or racial-based.

Highly recommend!

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Short Tales: Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie

January 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie

Some years ago I wrote a blog post on The Loose Cannons about reading aloud children’s books to the little ones. I had listed some tips or “rules” about making night-time reading an enjoyable experience for both the reader and child, and used the children’s book Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie as an example to explain my suggestions. Written and illustrated by the amazing Joel Stewart, this book is an underrated, well-done, timeless and deceptively simple story about the intricacies of friendship, the magic of imagination, and the awesomeness of adventures. This intrepid partnership joins the realms of Calvin and Hobbes and Charlie Brown and Snoopy because of its simple story-telling, imaginative escapades and good ‘ol fashioned fun.

Stewart is a well-known, creative and whimsical children’s book illustrator, but he is also a brilliant story-teller. Nothing exemplifies this that self-explanatory the title of the book Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie. Why wouldn’t it lure you to read. I saw the book at a sale rack at a Shaws Supermarket (a well known supermarket famous is Massachusetts). The artful synopsis on the back : a big, blue beast-like giant eyeing a little boy on a scooter, pointedly telling him “I’m bored. I think I’ll eat you.”

The Big Blue Beastie is in a perpetual state of boredom and constantly threatening to “eat” our intrepid young hero. Each time, Dexter counters with “Hold on, I have a much better idea” and comes up with various schemes that give him a few moments more (or many moons in storyland time). Thus we have the two frenemies scooting around on scooters, running a successful flower delivery business (complete with shares and the stock market), becoming famed private detectives called “Bexley & Beastie” (solving the case of the “The Rubber Glove Affair” and capturing arch nemesis Professor Horten Zoar, “although he later escaped”), creating the largest beast-iest yogurt sundae, and (finally) sharing lollipops.

A true trifecta of friendship, imagination and adventures!

Short Tales: The Sultan’s Perfect Tree

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

“The Sultan’s Perfect Tree” is another jewel from Jane Yolan’s library of modern fairy tales. A short story of about 16 pages, the book is about a beloved sultan who likes things to be just perfect. Orderly. Beautiful. Symmetrical. Perfect. In his mind, the perfectly shaped form, from the beautiful servants waiting on him down to the unblemished fruit served  on his golden platter, is the only form of life worthy of his consideration. However, this wouldn’t be a fairy tale if fate didn’t have other plans.

One autumnal day, a tree planted in the center of the Sultan’s symmetrically designed garden loses its leaves on one side because of a strong gust of wind. The tree, planted by the Sultan’s wise grandfather, is in his direct line of  vision, and so loses its perfection and and status. Thus begins the Sultan’s journey, in his quest to replace the imperfect tree with a perfect, albeit static, tree that can change with the seasons, to learn the true difference between perfection and imperfection. He is adroitly and subtly aided in his quest by a young serving girl who has not had the opportunity to become a perfectly behaved servant. Read that to mean one who can still think for herself and thus still has individualism, spunk and brains.

Illustrated by Barbara Garrison, The drawings are etched onto the pages, giving them a medieval, two dimensional feel reminiscent of mogul paintings from the sub-continent. Gentle splashes of color are spread throughout the paintings in an array of subdued tints creating a rather majestic and medieval presence. And the character’s expressions are so wonderfully expressive(!!!) that you smile each time you turn the page! Check out the library and see for yourselves!

sultan's perfect tree II

sultan's perfect tree I

Movie Review: Failan

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Failan broke my heart.

This movie was my introduction to Korean cinema, and for that reason alone it will always have a special place in my heart. However, Failan, more than any other movie, exemplifies Korean Cinema for me: viciously unpredictable, achingly sweet, apologetically heartwarming and completely redemptive in the only way a person can be – through complete loss. You don’t see stories told like this very often; Korean movies are very unique and Failan is even more so.

Official descriptions categorize Failan as a love story and that is correct. But what is not correct is that this is not really a love story as it is not romantic in the way we understand romance stories, and it is certainly not sweet in the way sweetness is usually depicted. It is also not a linear story. But it is a very simple story, told in two halves about two completely different people who begin to form an attachment to each other through letters, stories, perceptions and dreams. They both exist, and they know the other exists, but that is the only factual knowledge they have of each other.

Failan, played by the fragile actress Cecelia Cheung, is a sweet and shy Chinese orphan who moves to South Korea by contracting a “paper marriage” with Kang-jae, a South Korean thug, played with exquisite recklessness by Choi Min Sook (he of the Old Boy fame). Money is exchanged, they sign on the dotted line, take the required marriage photograph to show the immigration officer, a bribe is transacted, and that is the end of their business, at least on paper. I don’t think they even looked at each other.

What happens next is what dreams are made of. Kang-jae goes back to life as a worthless and cowardly thug, whose greatest achievement could be going to jail for his boss. Failan finds a menial job as a laundress whose closest family is her sweet landlady. Life goes on. But Failan has a copy of the marriage photograph where Kang-jae is smiling into the camera. And that smile is what transforms her existence from a hopeless daily grind to one of daily happiness because there was a man who, in her mind, cared enough to help her out of a difficult situation. That smile is the crux of the love story that is slowly reciprocated when Kang-jae is informed that his wife has died and he must collect her things. In order to prove his relationship, he tries to memorize some facts from the marriage certificate as well as two letters he received from her thanking him for his help. As he begins to learn of her through her writing, he begins to imagine her as she imagined him from his smile, and he becomes slowly touched by the gentleness of this lonely woman who has nothing but kind words and gratitude for him. Her unflappable faith in his goodness transforms him, and we see not only the love story as it grows, but the transformation of a man who behaved worthless because he believed himself to be worthless, to become a man who begins to believe in his own dignity and the ability to act with honor. His first act that is true to himself, and therefore a right and honorable act, becomes his last.

Yes, Failan broke my heart.

Book Review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series

September 24, 2012 § 4 Comments

Some months ago a I saw quaint and delightful looking book on the library bookshelf in the children’s section. The cover’s colors were muted, the illustration was detailed and the artwork had a whimsical quality permeating through every line and expression. Intrigued, I walked over and picked it up. I giggled; the title did not disappoint: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling. Obviously, I took it home for some after hours reading.

Fans of Romantic literature will be at once surprised and delighted; this book is a cross between a young mischievous Jane Austen and a playful Charlotte Bronte.

The book is written by Maryrose Wood, an award-winning author, play-writer, actor, director and comedienne who “was not raised by wolves.” The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is her first series in for middle-grade students, though I assure you that they are not the only ones who need to read them. As I mentioned, those familiar with Austen and the Bonte’s (especially Jane Eyre) will adore this series.

The protagonist is how a young Jane Eyre would have been as a young girl if she’d had a happy childhood. Her name is Miss Penelope Lumley, and she is a fifteen-year old governess from the famed Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females. As the academy’s top graduate ready to take on the world, she has been hired as a governess by Lord and Lady Ashton of Ashton Place for three orphans found by Lord Ashton during a hunting expedition in his very in the woods on his ginormous (yes, I wrote ginormous) grounds. The children, had thus far, been brought up by wolves! Picture the setting: Victorian England, a very old and very distinguished mansion located next to some very old woods, a plucky teacher and three howling and gnawing children. Through in Longfellow poems, Latin lessons, advanced mathematics, pithy (but apt) proverbs and a mystery shrouding the children’s origins, and you have an enchanting detective novel.

And let us not forget the beautiful and charming illustrations by Jon Klassen! Just look at the image!

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