A Cautionary Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Environmental contamination has decreased fertility. The fallout from this has spawned a strangely violent cult of morality. Viable ovaries are in high demand; therefore, men with influence are given exclusive access to breeding females who are not wives but handmaids. The handmaids are forced to wear chaste red dresses and white headpieces with modesty wings. They live sheltered lives in the homes of the Commanders with no access to entertainment or diversion except the monthly ritual of being held fast by the Commander’s wife while he attempts to impregnate her. Any violation of the strict code of conduct is dealt with in brutal and often lethal ways.

A Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. I read it then and recently reread it as required reading for the La Verne Writers’ Group. I have to say that I enjoyed it more in 1986. Not that it isn’t a great book, but this time through it, I found some parts going on a little excessively. Some scenes seemed repetitious. An element of the plot is a backlash against feminism, which was a more current theme in the eighties. Curiously, during this second reading, I was struck by how much Attwood’s apocalyptic world looked like a sharia zone. I had completely missed it before. Apparently, it wasn’t lost on Ms. Attwood, because she said: “They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.” Another element that lessened my enjoyment is that as I’ve aged as a reader, and perhaps a writer, I view metaphors with an increasingly jaundiced eye, and Margaret Attwood is nothing if not the queen of metaphors. The edition that I most recently read had an amusing sort of epilogue. It was a scholarly analysis of A Handmaid’s Tale from the viewpoint of academics in the distant future after having discovered it hidden on audio cassettes.

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Revisiting a Classic

Capture

From the deck of a yacht anchored on the Thames, while waiting for the tide to turn, Marlow relates a tale from his varied past. After hiring on as the skipper of a steamer bound for the interior of darkest Africa, ostensibly in pursuit of the ivory trade, Marlow finds that he is enmeshed in the drama surrounding an enigmatic officer of the Company, Kurtz. Everyone on the river is in awe of Kurtz who has created a sort of fiefdom among the indigenous tribes. In addition to the profit motive, the Company’s subtext is dragging the savage into the bosom of civilization at any cost to the poor brute. The crew, which is comprised solely of cannibals, vastly outnumbers the white men who are in charge of the dilapidated vessel, and they are, inexplicably, left to find their own food while the masters dine on tinned European delicacies. Word then spreads that Kurtz has fallen victim to the ubiquitous fever, and Marlow is forced to race against the treacherous current to reach him before it is too late.

The Heart of Darkness is, of course, a classic. It is brief, barely more than a novella, and it is told in the voice of Marlow whose narration gives the story a personal feel. Scenes that on their surface appear mundane resonate with subtle mystery. The role of Europeans in Africa is probed and prodded from many angles. It may have been required reading for many of you at an early date in your academic career, and many of you might have slogged through it under protest. The suggestion of this somewhat seasoned reader is: revisit it. It’s a journey worth repeating.

Teenage Angst

Family Forever: Young LoversFamily Forever: Young Lovers by Tamara Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Teenaged twin sisters, Emma and Jani, have after-school jobs and boyfriends who do not merit the approval of the twin’s parents. What could be more normal? There was a little ripple on the calm surface when Emma took a call from her ex-boyfriend informing her that Brad, for whom Emma dumped Frankie, happened to be engaged. That is eventually resolved to Emma’s satisfaction, and she soon accepts an engagement ring from Brad. The next crisis comes when Jani finds Nate passed out from smoking dope and learns that he deals pot on the side. Nate regains her affection, and they decide to elope to Las Vegas, but he has no money. Parents, Harry and Franny, disapprove of both young men but are savvy enough to know that they are no match for two strong-willed young women. So for the sake of economy, they agree, reluctantly, to a double wedding, which has to be accelerated due to the little matter of a pregnancy. Marital bliss does not last long.

Tamara Miller writes with a conversational style about the places where she has spent her whole life. She breathes honesty into her characters through the familiarity of having known them. These family dramas have a delightful truthfulness. They are stories everyone will recognize. The pace holds the reader’s attention, and the prose is genuine. Young Lovers is a candid glimpse into the lives of ordinary people and how life was in the transition from the nineteen fifties to the sixties. It is a solid, stand-alone sequel; however, readers will benefit from reading Tamara Miller’s first book in the Family Forever series, In the Beginning. Young Lovers has this reader’s wholehearted endorsement. It stirred many memories.

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