Margaret Atwood's The Testaments: A Review & Book Club Questions
The Testaments - Worth the Wait?
I blogged earlier in the week about reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in preparation of reviewing Atwood's The Testaments. I wanted to thoroughly prepare for the new release and make sure that I could remember who was who, why they mattered and so on.. Was it the right thing to do? Yes. If you haven't read either book, then definitely read The Handmaid's Tale first. Was it worth the wait? Yes. It was a superb sequel. Having said that it is definitely possible to enjoy The Testaments with no prior knowledge of Gilead and the characters in it. Atwood is a clever old stick!
The Testaments Review
Exquisitely plotted, The Testaments was a fabulous read that I really didn't want to put down. (That's not ideal when you are visiting your husband for a very short time only and shouldn't be spending all your time reading!). However, with more twists and turns than a meandering country lane (approached in the Boxster S of course), this sequel had a great storyline that held together meticulously well. I think with the passing of so much time and the nature of the dystopian society set up in Handmaid, the plot really did have to hold together superbly, so thank goodness that it did. The structure was fantastic with not a flaw and the characters overall were very well drawn too. Very little not to like with Aunt Lydia's testament being particularly strong.. Incidentally, I also loved her backstory. The ambience of Gilead was created, probably, or at least possibly, even more effectively than in Handmaid and most of the questions that I had were answered. I had blogged that I didn't want the book to waste too much time on what happened in Offred's 'love life', but I've let myself down as I would have liked to have one or two loose ends tied up that weren't, but I can hardly complain. There have been few books I've anticipated more excitedly than this one, and I am glad to say it didn't let me down.
The Testaments and The Handmaid's Tale - Questions Raised
As I read these were the main things that I ended up thinking about:
Although these two titles were intricately linked the writing style of the Testaments didn't tightly imitate Handmaid. In addtiion, the structure was completely different. Rather than a single narrator, Offred in Handmaid, we are shown the inside and outside of Gilead from three different narrators' perspectives as they recount their part of the story, roughly in turn. I don't think this matters but what do you think?
The Testaments has a greater variety of age and lifestyle of narrator and thus enables the reader to have far more breadth of understanding of Gilead and what happened. I got to thinking whether the book would have been as effective if we had continued with only one narrator?
Atwood places The Testaments in a more 'real' setting often referring to parts of neighbouring Canada. I wondered if this made the threat of this dystopia more or less frightening? I think Atwood says that she has only written about what she has known has happened in different places in our current world. I didn't hear the whole interview but I'm really curious about what she referred to. I need a class of kids to really get a good chat going about links to our current world.
Finally, sisterhood in all sense of the word, completely dominates the text. It is particularly poignant at the end. Sisterhood is a big term. I noticed in the Fortunately podcast the presenters use it in reference to each other. Not sure how I feel about that (!) and I need to reflect on what sisterhood really means to me.
Reading back these would only need a little bit of adapting to become book club questions. Hmmm... I wonder if that's the way to go in my blogging? In the meantime though I think it is time to read a new book. Mick has just finished Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls I haven't read any of her books for years so maybe that's the way to go, unless anyone has any other suggestions?
I do enjoy a good book!
Frasier as Prologue
There’s an episode of Frasier which explores his need for tranquility and solitude after Martin, his father, moves in with him. This is illustrated by an elaborate display of him plumping the cushions, pouring himself a glass of sherry and playing gentle classical music as he prepares to read his book alone. However, Frasier’s enjoyment is stymied by interruptions from Eddie the dog, the doorbell, the phone, and so on… if I’m not mistaken the same episode, or a further one on the same theme, concludes with Frasier throwing his father’s chair out a high window into the street below in a Freudian accident! It’s very funny if you haven’t seen it - one of the great Frasier farces. However, this isn’t a post about Frasier, but I did feel something akin to his frustration whilst trying to prepare to read Margaret Atwood’s highly acclaimed and much anticipated The Testaments by first re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale. How hard can it be to simply read a book?!
Frustrations only a Lover of Reading will Understand
There were many obstructions to reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Firstly, I had to dice with death to reach it from my bookshelf in preparation for my reading it on my plane journey to Bangkok. Alphabetized of course so ‘A’ for Atwood was at the very top! Secondly, my reading was prevented by irritating and irritated passengers on the plane. These included a nobby-know-it-all man who was sure I was in the wrong seat (I wasn’t); a very posh lady who, with her XXL sized makeup bag and abundance of Gucci hand luggage, considerably over-spilled into my area, (the irony being that she had been moved after complaining about her own oversized and overspilling neighbour); and an intemperate non-English speaking man across the aisle whose gesticulations and rants clearly demonstrated that my reading by my iphone torch light (oh, the overhead lighting had been too bright for the aforementioned (now in need of beauty sleep) passengers) was disturbing him. In the end I gave up trying to read The Handmaid’s Tale on the plane and instead satisfied myself by watching a couple of episodes of the eight Prime Time Emmy Awards winning series adapted by Hulu. (This, by the way, was excellent, but all good scholars know that the reading must precede the viewing whenever possible!)
Determined to be philosophical and patient (even though The Testaments was burning a holy hole in my very core and I had a whole further book to get through first) I decided I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale on the way to Hua Hin instead. My marvellous Saint Mick of Thana (honestly, not to gush, but he is the best husband ever) had booked us into the Hilton for the long weekend. Things continued to go wrong delaying my reading. After a completely rubbish day at school and after being on the (what felt to me very late) late shift at a school event (I haven’t seen him for six weeks after all) Mick broke down on his way home. He had to leave the car under a dubious looking electricity transformer and an even more dubious Thai buzzing electric spaghetti of wiring on a flooded road in the middle of a thunderstorm and hope to not hear any fire-engines. Eventually the car was towed and once fixed the next morning we finally departed. However, after all the drama and having not seen Mick for six weeks, I felt the least I could do was actually chat with the old fella on the journey, so the reading was once again delayed.
Hua Hin, as always, doesn’t disappoint and the book at last – eureka - is read!
The Handmaid’s Tale – Nostalgia
As far as I know, Margaret Atwood is a pretty ‘out there’ author, offering inspiration and online writing advice. This would be great for IB students to tap into. I even think I read or heard on a radio interview somewhere that Atwood has a scheme where she ‘pair writes’ with a new author and acts as their mentor. If I haven't got that wrong (which I possibly have, how incredibly cool. She is one of those people that I’d invite to my dream dinner party, I’d probably be so star struck that I would just gawk in awe and say nothing whilst our elderly and incontinent dog Wizz, did her trick of wanton weeing beside the guests!
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 18 or 19. I loved it then, but I love it even more now. If there was ever a book (and even better, a sequel) for a nostalgic 50 year old to revisit and reflect upon this is it. It is brilliant. I’d give almost anything to (just one last time) sit down with a group of students and study it together. Faces of students I’d taught jumped into my mind continually as I read – Elyse, Vic, Petra, Hanoi, Leonardo, Michael. We’d have an absolute ball soaking up the text and debating the themes within. Honestly, there is just so much to dissect and chat about, it’s absolutely a first-rate read which I’d highly recommend. If anything it feels even more relevant now than it did thirty years ago. It’s made me determined to revisit all of Atwood’s other books too and check out what I missed. Oryx and Crake, as well as being a love story, is of course such a great text for exploring environmental issues with. As a teacher, fiction can keep topics intensely personal whilst completely de-personalizing them and thus avoiding conflict in the classroom (does that even make sense?) As a Harry Potter fan it seems like Atwood is constantly ahead of her time - a much more relaible version of J.K Rowling’s Professor Trelawney, with the added extra of talent beyond belief thrown in for good measure.
Margaret Atwood’s Brilliance
Atwood keeps the ‘I’ at the centre of all her writing. It is through the minutae of the representation and portrayal of individual life that we are able to so successfully explore the global central themes of societal oppression, religious indoctrination and environmental concern. A real beauty of her writing is an unspoken acknowledgement by her characters, usually the protagonists, that this is the case. She demonstrates that rarely, probably never can a utilitarian society reflected in whatever type of dystopia portrayed, (or rebellion against the dystopia) suppress individual and personal want. For example, Offred guilitily rushes through her account of her affair with Nick.
I think what re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of the most is how marvellous a tool fiction is to explore world issues and also how fiction (for me anyway), more than anything, else gets to the crux of exploring the human condition (whatever that means!) Her references to the misuse of Islam on which to blame all world problems; the dangers that having a little power brings; and the skills repressors have of using the oppressed to oppress further, gave me plenty of food for thought. I guess historians and sociologists would do the same by studying real-life societal issues (Brexit perhaps!), but for me it is only by escaping society that I can start to understand it. Let’s face it, it is also good to escape, though having said that reading Atwood is not a passive activity.
The paradox of the utter insignificance of the individual juxtaposed against the absolute significance of that same individual is never far from the surface of her books. This leaves the reader with their mind blown, their energy levels in overdrive and their desire to make every moment count; resolute, as for all of us life is transient and short. With this in mind, I was very saddened to see yesterday that Atwood’s long term partner died whilst Atwood had been in the UK promoting her new book The Testaments. Sad news indeed.
Anticipation of Atwood’s The Testaments
Back to the sun, sea and sand in Hua Hin. I am recovered from my journey, full from a very large breakfast and admiring the view. I am replete and ready to reverently open the pages of The Testaments. I hope that I don’t get my lovely new hardcopy spoiled by reading it on the beach, but if I do such is life! I have avoided all reviews and sincerely wish for the following: that I do in fact get to find out what happened to the central characters in The Handmaid’s Tale; that I learn how the utop/dsystop-ia fell (I know from the epilogue to Handmaid that it did indeed fail); and that the book doesn’t fall into anything as banal as an exploration of whether Offred chooses Luke (if he is alive) over Nick. That would be very disappointing. However… I shall see. I won’t be blogging again until I’ve read it.
I've been a little bit lazy with my blogging lately. I'm not sure why. I guess I'm not invested enough to do the background work to get my SEO rankings anything like respectable and I'm too poor, or too mean (not sure which!) to pay someone to do it for me. Also, more importantly I'm still not completely sure what type of blog I want to produce. It's a work in progress. If' you've stuck with me so far thank you very much.
All the advice I've read about being a successful blogger says to write what your audience wants to read. However, I think when I started this blooging malarkey I'd had a more 'write what you want to write' approach in mind. A kind of online diary I guess - the musings of a middle aged mum. Heaven fobid that I tell the whole truth! Sticking with this approach means, of course, I won't get lots of readers as the blog isn't focused enough, but it makes me happpy to share what I've been thinking about, so that's what I've decided to continue to do.
This week I've been spending time back in Broughton and just chilling with family. It isn't wild, but is very lovely. In the gaps I've managed to read the memoir, 'Somebody I Used to Know'. I came across it online as I follw Wendy Mitchell's blog, 'Which me am I today?' She is a woman who (or is it whom?) I hugely admire. Diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, she has set about showing the nation that her illness is just like any other, something you live with and maange rather than a reason to give up on life.
Wendy is something of a force of nature. In all honesty, I bet she is a real 'go-getter' and would scare the pants off me. She gave an animated interview on Jenny Eclair's and Judith Holder's 'Older and Wider' podcast which I really enjoyed and inspired me to learn more about her (episode 20 I think). In her book she shares how she travels up and down the country, raising awareness about dementia and meeting both like minded people, and also people, who need educating. Significantly, she describes her emotions of living with the illness and how she manages the difficulties it imposes. She is very frank and honest, so consequently it is a really moving and powerful read.
I've actually recently reviewed the book on my goodreads acccount if you're interested. As an aside, if you haven't come across goodreads, I can't recommend it enough. It is a great way of keeping tabls on your own reading and getting recommendations from others. You can follow your favourite authors, share reviews and all kinds of book related things. I'm completely addicted to it - wild woman that I am!
I actually recently reviewed a different book, Sally Magnusson's Where Memories Go, also about dementia, on the goodreads site. Strangely they are the only two books I've given a five star rating this year. I guess it is because I think they so successfully fill the gap in the market for intelligent well-written social commentary on this emotional topic. Where Memories Go focused on sharing the author's story of how she helped care for her mum with dementia. It was a hugely insightful and inspiring text to read.
So, if you're not sure what to read this summer and you do like memoirs, these are two great reads on an under explored topic. If anyone else has any recommendaitons for other interesting summer reads I'd love to hear them. My next pick is going to be a novel I think. In the meantime, happy reading and happy summer holidays!
I've just discovered Brene Brown's The Gifts of Imperfections, which I'm listening to as an audio book whilst I swim. It makes a very welcome change to Haruki Murakami's Killing Commandatore which I've recently finished. It wasn't that Killing Commandatore wasn't interesting to listen to, but at 700 plus pages, I think I could have swum to Thailand in the time it took to get through it!
Anyway, Brene Brown's text is a very different type of book. It's non-fiction self-help and explores the obstacles to happiness and how to be courageous in facing our imperfections and making connections (or something like that anyway!). I haven't listened to much yet, but so far there is lots to be interested in and to enjoy. It too might be better to read a print version of (a friend mentioned, quite often within it, you want to pause and reflect on how her observations resonate personally) as by the time I've finished my swim I can't always bring to mind what Brene Brown has said (perhaps my 50 year sieve for a brain), but one comment she made did get me thinking.
She commented on how in restaurants kids spend loads of time on their 'screens' when instead the family could be making connections. It was, I think a fairly insignifcant remark and I get the feeling that Brene Brown would be very open to discussing this, but I'm not sure if I agree or not.
I do get the whole thing about screen time and how it restricts conversation, but I can't help just being a little bit defensive about using screens too. I think any kind of 'babysitter' at meals can be a very good thing. When my own girls were young screens were still in their infancy - the most hi-tech phone was a brick like Nokia and a gameboy was a luxury item - so we took crayons and a colouring book everywhere we went. Rather than being criitcised for bringing something to occupy the kids with us, we used to get praised for the foresight in doing so. This is different to parents today who are criticised and berated for giving kids tablets or phones to occupy them.
I've been trying to figure out the difference between screens and colouring and why one is deemed ok and the other isn't.
The colouring argument:
The screen argument:
Therefore according to this it seems screens might come out on top. (I'm fairly sure I haven't created this bias simply because of my own ridiculously high daily screen time consumption, as reported to me by my trusty I-phone!)
Actually, if I had to comment on what I think the very best 'babysitter for kids' is I'd say engaging with books (even for pre-readers). Of course this does require some independence, but then so does colouring and using screens. I think it always makes sense to have a pile of books in the back of the car or in a bag at all times when out with kids. Anyone who knows me though will know that a book is my answer to pretty much everything! Stories can be accessed on screen of course, but there is nothing like the tactile feel of a printed book!
As we have been talking about crayons the following picture books spring to mind to include in that pile in the car: Drew Daywalt's and Oliver Jeffer's The Day the Crayons Quit and the Day the Crayons Came Home.They're both lovely stories with a strong moral, plenty to discuss and plenty of humour too. And, whilst I am definitely not putting myself up there with the likes of Jeffers I guess as we are talking about screens or otherwise then I'll give my own story 'The Day the Wi-Fi Broke' a mention. It is available on Kindle and hard copy too, not that I'm sitting on the fence! It really does work well for exploring balance in the use of computers and the kids I've read it with have loved it. I figure it's ok to give myelf a little pat on the back from time time. If I don't then who else will and I'm sure Brene Brown would approve :).
An unexpected treat read.
I probably chose this book because as a listener to the Older and Wider podcast, more than anything else, I was curious about the author. I was doubtful whether a stand-up-comedian could really write good fiction and wondered whether Jenny Eclair was just cashing in on her name. Cynic that I am! The answer is that that Eclair is an excellent author.
I also guess I chose it because it was cheap - only 99p on Kindle!
Moving was an excellent book, well written with a tightly plotted storyline. It addresses many of the social issues of late twentieth century UK with both warmth and humour. Addressing issues associated with 'yuppiedom', politics and the original 'entitled' generation, the story line moves towards a moderately hopeful yet pretty realistic conclusion.
The book does end quite abruptly, with me continuing to flick the pages on my kindle to check whether there was more to come, but the structure drew it effectively to its conclusion. It reminded me just a little bit of Barbara Kingsolver's 'Unsheltered' as both books use houses and setting to evoke most of the atmosphere in their stories. Kingsolver, would, I guess, be viewed as a far more literary text (what makes a literary text anyway?), but which did I enjoy the most? I'd have to say, surprisingly, this one. Having said that I did admire Unsheltered too, and reviewed it on Goodreads. It was just a bit long and slow to get into!
Elcair's novel was immediately attention grabbing and a a page turner. All in all it's an excellent read, not highbrow but accessible and full of merit. If you are looking for summer reads, I definitely recommend it.
For me, listening to the podcast and thus feeling I know a little something, at least about the author added positively to the reading experience. ("To what extent can an author ever be separated from their writing. Discuss?") It's time I stopped framing essay questions, left school behind and focused on something else. Oh Lordy, I sense a podcast on 'if only we could all be podcasters' coming on!