Thursday, September 26, 2019

Atwood's The Testaments

There has been so much over-the-top publicity surrounding the publication of Margaret Atwood's sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale," that I almost wondered whether or not to write about "The Testaments." Don't we already know what it's all about? And really, was all the hoopla about the embargo and the Amazon snafu necessary? Atwood herself has hardly been reticent about appearing on
talk shows and doing interviews. She has told us that her fans' curiosity was the reason she felt compelled to write this novel of answers.

It's a great read! As you might expect, it's smart and snarky, witty and fast-paced, but it is not as terrifyingly dystopian as its predecessor. In fact, I see hope, even optimism in Atwood's vision. Gilead, like any society or organization built on a fundamentalism designed to regulate morality, limit knowledge, and terrorize free thinkers, is rotting from within. If you watched the Hulu television series, now filming its fourth season, you've already seen this manifest and will likely find no huge surprises in the book. This will not keep you from enjoying it. I burned through it in two days.

There are three alternating narrators. The most compelling of them is, has to be, Aunt Lydia. Through her secretly written memoirs, hidden away in a library (thank you Margaret) for future researchers to find, we learn about the horrific deeds that brought the brilliant, educated women, the judges, lawyers, doctors, and business people, together in a sports stadium, handcuffed, starved, tortured, and given a choice. Die or survive under the new Gileadian world order. When Aunt Lydia describes her thought process as she makes her decision you may question it, but I defy you to judge. 

The underground "femaleroad" is a thriving network running along land and sea borders between Gilead and Canada. Atwood's talent at ratcheting up suspense and foreboding takes us into the hearts of the selfless men and women who operate it. The layers of subterfuge naturally breed distrust and the lives of these people are lonely and difficult. Canada may be a safe place but it is no Utopia. Still, women from Gilead do manage to escape, often having to leave their children behind.

What I most appreciate about Atwood's new novel is the insight she displays into women and female-led organizations in particular. Ardua Hall is the home of the Aunts, the women in charge of training the Handmaids, the future brides, and the novice Aunts. The hall contains a vast library, knowledge only Aunts are allowed to access and enjoy. Just imagine what smart women can do with that! The women are cunning and crafty. Life in the hall is like a chess game and Lydia is the master. 

It's true that men perpetrated the injustice of a creation like Gilead on its inhabitants but Atwood lets readers intuit from the first page that Gilead will not last. Remember, as you read, that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Afternoon at the National Book Festival

Now that all of the author interviews from the National Book Festival are on YouTube I've discovered that there were people in line to hear Ruth Bader Ginsburg at 4:30 in the morning! Yes, she's a rock star but my days of camping out for anyone are pretty much over. 

Once the largest venue opened up and Ginsburg and her entourage were safely away I managed to snag a seat for the tail end of Chef Jose Andres' chat with NPR stalwart Diane Rehm. I will always have a soft spot for him and the courage he showed to cancel his deal with the devil...that would be his contract to run the restaurant at the what should be illegal Trump International Hotel in the District of Columbia. 

Andres has a huge heart and his warmth and love for people and food exuded from every pore. His charity, World Central Kitchen, has been feeding the hungry in decimated parts of the world for years now, specifically those in Puerto Rico after the devastation of hurricane Maria, at the borders where the tired and poor yearning to be free are amassed, and now up to 10,000 meals a day in the Bahamas. 

I was actually in that audience to ensure a seat for the next presenter, New York Times columnist and NPR commentator, David Brooks. I've been reading him for years, if only to try to understand what I perceived as the "other side's" opinion, but lately I'd noticed a distinct change in the tenor of his essays. Since the
election of Donald Trump, David Brooks has been evolving and showing his readers a softer side. His explanation is in his new book "The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life." His talk about his own failures as a man and as a friend and his search for meaning in life and relationships was by far the most heart-felt, thought provoking of the day. I can't wait to complete my literary fiction project for Library Journal so that I can take the time to dive into what I believe will be an instructive piece of non-fiction. If you want to watch Brooks' surprisingly funny, self-deprecating interview the link is here.

Those of you who follow me may remember that Richard Powers' "The Overstory" was my choice for number one novel read in 2018. My favorite book reviewer, Ron Charles from the Washington Post, is always front and center at the National Book Festival, but even he exhibited a bit of hero worship as he spoke with Powers about the ways his life changed after researching and writing his Pulitzer Prize winner. Great fiction has the same power as a great teacher, to inform, to engage, and to enable us to see the world, in this case the natural world, in a whole new light. I know that I'll never look at a tree in the same way again. Sadly though, inspiration is no longer on Richard Powers' mind. When asked whether he believed that we humans can stop the tide of irreversible climate change damage, he gave a devastating, unnuanced answer. No!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

National Book Festival

It's been almost two weeks since my sister and I attended the Library of Congress National Book Festival in D.C.  My initial thoughts were negative so I'm glad that I've been on the road for a couple of weeks visiting family and have had time to temper my initial reactions. Having participated in so many reading festival in southwest Florida I do understand how important logistics are and am now surprised that I underestimated how the LOC would handle the overwhelming response to the appearance of the Notorious RBG!

Though we arrived by ten in the morning for Richard Ford's American Literature Award, planning to hang out in the four thousand seat auditorium for Ruth Ginsburg's 11:30 presentation, it was not to be. The crowd control police wouldn't even let us go up the stairs to get in line. Once I got over my disappointment I realized that I'd be able to attend smaller events and actually got to hear so many wonderful authors, many of whom I've had the pleasure of reviewing in the past, and a couple of whom I will be reviewing soon.

Within a few weeks the LOC website should be updated with video of all the speakers and you'll be able to enjoy them for yourselves. Last year, when working on the best of literary fiction for Library Journal, I read "The Incendiaries" by R.O. Kwan. She was on a panel with Valeria Luiselli whose new novel, "The Lost Children Archive," is sitting on my desk at home awaiting my return and attention. It is a potential candidate for "best of" this year. 

Initially I didn't feel that the two books had that much in common. The Luiselli is a timely take on the current immigration crisis on the southern border while Kwon's novel centers more on a crisis of faith. Still, narrator Aminata Forna whose glorious novel "Happiness" was one of my top ten choices last year, managed to correlate the two as mediations on the discomfort of so-called outsiders as they desperately try to assimilate, fly under the radar, and adjust to the often unfair assumptions of others. All three authors have international backgrounds, having been born in, raised in, and traveled through many different countries on their paths to the United States, a fact that informs their work with an enviable worldliness.

In keeping with theme of the immigrant experience of displacement was the fascinating interview with Bengali author Amitav Ghosh whose latest novel,
"Gun Island," come out this week. This is one I'm really looking forward to reading. Human trafficking, devastating climate change, the plight of the immigrant. Serious subjects wrapped up in Ghosh's inimitable combination of fantasy and history taking readers through time and across nations. Mr. Ghosh spoke passionately about the destruction of our planet and the need for writers of fiction to address this human problem, giving a shout out to Richard Powers and "The Overstory." 

More on the afternoon's presentations soon. Must go download a boarding pass now and make a last stop at my favorite bagel place before flying home tomorrow. Happy reading!