The Girl Who Smiled Beads - Book Review and Book Club Questions
Autobiography, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Wile, about Clemantine's experience of the Rwandan Massacre.
This is a powerful and well-written autobiography/biography sharing the story of Clemantine Wamariya. She and her sister Claire are adrift as refugees, fleeing the terror imposed during the Rwandan War. I hadn’t heard of Clemantine prior to reading the book, but it seems she became something of a ‘genocide survivor celebrity’ after sharing her story on Oprah.
When considering memoirs and biographies there tends to be an assumption that the process of writing the book will help the author come to peace with what has happened in it. – a cathartic process. What struck me most about this text is that this doesn’t seem to be the case. Even as the book comes to its conclusion and Clementine tries to make things as ‘right’ as they ever can be for her mother, she continues to seem completely troubled. There is a sense that she has gone through the worst, come out the other side, but because of that almost incomprehensible worst there can never be a best. So, whilst Clemantine can analyse and evaluate her situation and does critically review everything she has been through, she can’t quite fully come to terms with it or move forward.
The book does make for an unnerving read. There is nothing comfortable about Clemantine’s account as she repeatedly reflects on the brutality of it. There is no redemption, no forgiving and forgetting. One of the things Clemantine is troubled and confused by is how many Rwandan’s have, to some extent at least, moved forward with life (of course they have to). She finds this difficult to comprehend and the reader is exposed to the complexity of responding emotionally with any kind of rationality to such horror.
Clemantine explores the life she has created in America and illustrates how she is frequently misjudged, mistreated and misunderstood. To be truthful, whilst reading I am full of fear that I am the person doing the misunderstanding, which makes me feel a little defensive about a perhaps imagined reproach. Ridiculous eh! I feel that Clemantine resents and fears that she will always have the outsider position imposed on her yet cannot allow herself to take any other societal or personal position in the relationships she makes.
Lasting Impression of the Girl Who Smiled Beads
Ultimately, the book made me feel humbled, frightened, reflective and grateful. I love the parable of the girl who smiled beads, I love the honesty of the writing and I love being privileged to have had this ‘life story’ shared with me.
Girl, Woman, Other Book Review
I read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other after she had already jointly won the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood for The Testaments. I’d been intrigued to know what text would merit being considered equal to The Testaments as I had expected Atwood to be the lone winner (don’t think there is any doubting that it would have been wrong to not acknowledge the exquisite accomplishment of Margaret Atwood’s fabulous sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale.) As Evaristo says herself in this interview, who better to share the Booker with than Atwood.
Anyway, Evaristo did not disappoint. Far from it. Why have I never read any of her other books? Rather, I was blown away by the prose. It isn’t a poetry in verse, not quite, but it is beautiful to listen to. Reading the text made me intrigued to know more about the author as I was staggered by the incredible insight she has into humanity. It sounds a bit pretentious, but her writing really is a tour de force (a phrase she mocks at one point in the book) and like no other I have discovered in recent years. Exploring the lives of four groups of women she addresses just about every ‘woman’s issue’ (I use the phrase deliberately ‘tongue in cheek’) I can think of. From motherhood to sexuality, to ambition to regret – it is all there. I don’t know if I should admit this, as it perhaps shows my incredible naiveity that I didn’t actually think about the centrality of race until I read Evaristo’s own comments on this.
The links within the groups of women are significant and the links between those groups exist in the same way that unlikely connections and correlations occur in life, simultaneously realistic and incredulous.
Sleep Deprived Empty Nesters
I’m lying here in bed at 3.35 a.m. listening to the rain outside wondering whether Annie got home ok from her night out yesterday. I’m not too worried as I know she was travelling with her friend Alfie, but I question whether it is raining over in Spain too and if not whether it is cold. I hope that she has remembered to wear a proper coat. I know she won’t have put gloves on or even taken any to Salamanca with her. I check my phone to see if she has messaged but I am not expecting anything. It is her third year at university and I have slowly weaned myself off from asking her check in every ten minutes. I often manage up to an hour now! (Only half joking!)
Mick is in Bangkok and will probably be just getting up, I bet the dog is barking for attention. Betsy is in York and has messaged earlier to say that she is safely home from her evening out. There is no one to disturb if I switch on my very loud coffee machine so I get up and make myself a drink. It’s ok, but I know that Mick would scorn the inferior ‘bargain basement’ coffee beans. Only two weeks until half term when I see him. This makes me smile. I breathe out. For the first time this week my anxiety levels are within acceptable levels. Relax
I pick up Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen At Home which I’m about half way through. I adore Jane Austen, (particularly Pride and Prejudice) and admire Lucy Worsley but I’m soon sleepy. I lay the book aside. I have planned to blog in the morning about ‘Empty Nesters’ and I drift off wondering what type of empty nesters Mr and Mrs Bennet were. ....
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.