A Maid’s Story

There’s only 2 months left in my #20before20 challenge! I still want to knit a sweater, visit one more state park, and record a song on my ukulele — will I have time?!

I finished two things last night — A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read my thoughts here),

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aaand a quilt!

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I finally finished my quilt! I started with this pattern from Purl Bee. Since I’d never made a quilt before, was broke, didn’t own my own sewing machine, and bought fabric piecemeal, the end result is not perfect. The quilt has uneven corners, stitches showing, and some puckering.

I hand-quilted and hand-bound my quilt. I freewheeled a bit and did the quilting in triangle shapes, and added some embroidery on the top of the quilt.

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Seeing the top of the quilt laid out (unironed — I hate irons. And hairdryers), I didn’t think I would ever finish.

It’s a little ironic that I finished this as I was finishing A Handmaid’s Tale. I think most modern women associate traditional crafts like quilting and sewing and cooking with women’s inequality and subjugation. You know, these crafts are “old”, from an earlier age when women had to stay at home.

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Pondering the raw edges.

But I think that framework is too simplistic. Saying that modern women shouldn’t perform any “old-time” crafts denies the raw pleasure I get from crafting a warm, useful item. It denies the joy of making a beautiful object, even if that object is not technically perfect. And I like to think that lots of women before me, however politically or socially equal they were to men, also got pleasure in seeing their friends and children wrapped in a handmade quilt.

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Hand-sewing the binding. It started out boring, but became meditative.

In the end, this quilt not as big or as perfect as I might like. But imperfections show that it was made by a person. I am not a machine, and I chose to make this quilt. And I took great pleasure in sleeping under it last night, even though it was 85 degrees outside.

Just don’t expect me to start another one soon.

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The end: a hand-made quilt.

How do you view “home ec” and “womanly arts”? Do you embrace them? Are you glad for your store-bought clothes and microwave, or do you make things frequently? How does doing crafts or not doing crafts relate to your sense of personal freedom and equality?

 

Top cotton and muslin. Bottom Kona cotton. Machine sewn, hand-quilted. Based on Purl Bee’s Triangle Quilt.

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A Handmaid’s Tale

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Nearing the end of my #20before20 reading list, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I intended this list to cover American fiction from the 20th century; I didn’t realize till I finished that Atwood is a Canadian author. I decided that it should count towards my list anyways. No disrespect towards Canadian literature, but the book seemed similar enough to American literature, and it was interesting and important enough to review. And, based in Harvard, it seems mostly a reflection on the past and possible future of America and Americans.

Handmaid’s Tale is narrated by Offred. After religious extremists gunned down the President and Congress, a civil war remade America into numerous districts. The most powerful district is Gilead, who, faced with a plummeting birth rate, decided to reorganize society. All single women become Handmaids, and are assigned to have sex with government officials. If they become pregnant and have a child, they are saved. Offred has been torn away from her husband and daughter, and is made a Handmaid to a manipulative Commander. As Offred struggles to maintain identity while interacting with the Commander and his wife, Serena Joy, she is contacted by the Mayday resistance organization, which may offer hope of escape and a new life.

The novel closes ambiguously, as Offred’s escape is arranged by Mayday. We don’t know if she was able to find refuge in Canada or England; we don’t know if Gilead fell, or if an equitable society was ever established.

Margaret Atwood has been described as a feminist and a science fiction writer, but she disliked both groupings. She preferred to call the novel “speculative fiction”, saying,

“For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do…. speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand and that takes place on Planet Earth.”

 

A Handmaid’s Tale, to my eye, is not science fiction, and it is not about feminism. It is about power and agency. Gilead’s fundamentalism is always dangerously close at hand. Women may be the most easily subjugated, and have historically been the subjugated, but Handmaid’s Tale also warns us of how easily both the men and the women, of all levels of society, can be indoctrinated and how easily we take and mete out subjugation. The Commander may be as pitied and scorned as the sniveling Janine.

How close are we to the patriarchal society established in Gilead? Are there elements of that society in our lives today? How should we maintain agency and equality?

 

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Rabbit, Run

–N.B. This review will contain a big spoiler. Read at your peril.

 

Rabbit Angstrom, a former basketball star, abandoned his pregnant wife and son in search for revelation and salvation.

As this book built, I could sense inevitable tragedy growing against Rabbit’s boundless optimism. Rabbit ran between his family and Ruth, and between reality and his former glory. He ran towards a vague sense of destiny, formed by a shallow Lutheranism and a clammy friendship with Reverend Eccles. I knew Rabbit would eventually have to choose how the rest of his life would play out.

After wrenching pages of buildup the baby died, but the story was still not over. Janice chose the numbness of alcohol and paid for it, but Rabbit still wavered between duty and desire. He still hoped for a “thing behind everything” that would give significance to his life. So he runs, again.

I am glad for ambiguous endings. I don’t enjoy them; I long for a full resolution. But I am intrigued by the possibilities Updike suggests by Rabbit’s final running — is he running home towards his family, and an apology? Or away towards a fuller life? Or is the mere act of running, of movement, a declaration of life and salvation? I’m unsure.

I watched the movie version of A River Runs Through It, and I found myself wanting to watch a movie of Rabbit (played, of course, by Kevin Spacey). But I think that a movie would give an implicit slant to the ending, even though Updike wanted it ambiguous.

What do you think about this book? Does Rabbit achieve a resolution? What do you think is implied in the final scene?

 

 

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A Month of Reading

Well, while I haven’t blogged for a month, I have been reading!

The women in my family took a trip to Myrtle Beach for a weekend. I’m not hard to entertain; I spent three days reading on the sand, and knocked off 3 books on my 20before20 list! It’s also been a month of firsts, which is what this blog is all about — end of my first year of college, beginning of a new job, and beginning of a summer class. I’ve been keeping pretty busy. A side note that I realized when writing this post is that all of these books have movie adaptations; I just added A River Runs Through It, with Brad Pitt, to my Netflix queue. I’ll let you know how it compares.

Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron

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I began this book intrigued by Styron’s layers of background detail of the mysterious Sophie and her troubled lover, Nathan. But over the course of this book, which I read on the sand next to my twelve-year-old sister, I grew bored and exhausted. I grew bored of constantly having to shield pages of Stingo’s raunchy imaginings from my sister. I grew exhausted by Nathan’s mania, and Sophie’s defense of him. I grew exhausted by how close I was to liking the book — one less pornographic scene, or a little less buildup to Sophie’s Choice. When Sophie was forced to choose between her children, I almost missed it — and then the book spiraled on, to its dispiriting conclusion. I’m not sure what Styron was trying to say — if Sophie’s grief eventually caught up to her, or if the horrible end that she escaped at Auschwitz dogged her to a bedroom with Nathan, or if Stingo was always powerless to help the lost.

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

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I found this book’s prose and exposition slow at first, but then I became caught in the vivid Mississippi (Louisiana?) trawl of its characters. Maybe because the narrator, Jack, is a small-time reporter, or maybe because the story of Willie Talos (originally published as Willie Stark) is the inevitable arc of the politician. Talos’s change from small-town politician trying to make change for the common man, to a corrupt boss in the governor’s seat, is a mythic fall. But Jack recounts Talos’s story with an intriguing mix of venom and compassion, and Talos’s fall comes not from a lawsuit or another politician, but upon being revealed as an adulterer and a bad father. He built his career upon the faults of other men, and found his own faults exposed in a blinding instant.

I did not enjoy reading this book, but I liked it, and I liked it in the light of the last few pages, where Jack is looking at events in the light of his marriage. He has to live with the consequences of what Talos did, not only to the state, but also to his future marriage to Ada. The past and present do not exist in a vacuum, but are tangled ceaselessly together, and all the king’s men cannot right certain wrongs.

A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean

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I had to get away from the Holocaust and corruption scandals, so I picked up MacLean’s novella.  I knew only that MacLean was a Presbyterian and a writer, like me. I have never picked up a fly or a fishing pole in my life, but MacLean’s genius is in drawing in both the aficionado of fishing and the initiate.

Paul may be the best fly-fisher Norman has ever seen, but he parties and drinks at all hours, and Norman can never work up the courage to address Paul’s drinking problem. Drawn together by a lazy cousin who steals their beer, falls asleep naked by the river with a whore, and, worst of all, hates fishing, Norman and Paul share a moment of joy by the river. But MacLean quickly dashes a moment of foreboding, falling on the heels of Paul’s triumph: “‘Just give me three more years,’ Paul said… and I realized that the river must have told me, too, that he would receive no such gift.”

MacLean reminds me most of Wendell Berry, known for his pastoral elegies in rural Kentucky. MacLean enlists the natural world to tell us about Paul and Nathan, and the words we wish we would have said. Fly-fishing becomes a means to talk about brotherhood and debt. A River is not really about fly fishing; it is about the Calvinist shadow of debt and obligation that hangs over Norman while he struggles to make sense of his brother’s brutal death. I fell in love with this book in the closing paragraph, as Norman fishes and writes in a way to remember his brother. I fell in love with his turn of phrase that describes a river running through all things, and the words that lie beneath the water.

I need to go to the library to stock up on the rest of my classics, but I’m currently on a theology-philosophy kick, and have been reading some Lauren Winner and Frederica Matthewes-Green. On the 20before20 side, I also wrote a few letters and drew a sunflower with color pastels. And I started a new short story, inspired by Of Mice and Men. Have a lovely Monday!

 

 

 

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Big Brother Is Watching

I finished George Orwell’s 1984 at 1:30 last night. I thought, I don’t have much more to read, and it finally got to interesting torture parts. Maybe I’ll like the end better than the rest of the book. Maybe I’ll stop feeling like I’m reading Divergent or Hunger Games.

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I was correct. The ending surprised me. The book is about Winston Smith, an intellectual living in a totalitarian state, who begins to question the state (called Big Brother). Oceania’s chief weapon is thought-control and Newspeak, a way of reshaping language and eliminating memory so that, in the end, thinking anything other than what Big Brother wants “will be impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”. Winston, struggling with dissatisfaction, discovers love with Julia and an underground resistance, and tries to take down Big Brother, only to find himself caught and tortured by the police. In the end, pain causes him to abandon resistance, betray Julia, and eventually confess love for Big Brother.

The ending redeemed the book. I know that Orwell pioneered the genre of dissatisfied-angst-with-opressive-state, but the Matrix did it so much better. I was unimpressed with Winston’s inarticulate fumblings, and the long excerpts from the banned revolutionary’s handbook. But the ending impressed me. The ending is where Orwell transcends his fear of totalitarianism and gets to the heart of the matter, and the true downfall of Winston Smith: Winston was so broken by the state that he was made to love what he hated.

Is 1984 still relevant for me, a white, middle class American? I live in what could be called the freest country in the world, in the freest era. Sure, people grumble about how the NSA is like Big Brother, or how Google knows everything about you. Privacy may be coming to an end. But I don’t see freedom ending, or freedom of thought. And maybe I’m an optimist, but I feel like we would see it coming. I feel like there must be a resolution other than Winston’s gibbering retirement, or the other characters’ mindless acceptance. I have faith in people’s resistance, and of eventual resolution and restoration. I don’t think it’s a naive worldview, or that everything will always be okay. But in the long overview, I don’t see 1984 happening. I choose not to believe it.

 

 

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Beloved

I knew nothing about Toni Morrison or her novel, Beloved, except that it won a Nobel Prize.

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I began reading, and I was hit over the head with a malicious baby ghost, a strange family, and a lurking history. I was sucked in immediately by Morrison’s poetry of language.

How do you write about slavery? How do you write about families torn apart? How do you write about escape and loneliness and regret and anger? How do you write about murder and reunion, while sidestepping sentimentality and judgment?

Morrison manages all of these things when writing about Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter. And she transforms what could have so easily been a sensationalist story into a sweeping extended poem about love and family. Don’t wait to read Morrison, like I did. Place a hold at your library tonight.

What am I reading now? 1984, by Orwell. Stay tuned for another freak-out about Soviet communism!

 

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Farewell

(SPOILERS CONTAINED)

I finished a Farewell to Arms, the novel that cemented Hemingway’s success, and I was really angry. The baby died. Catherine died. Henry is alone in Switzerland, a deserter, a widower. It’s a jarring end to a fairly conventional boy-meets-girl story.

That’s the point.

I’m writing this review a week after finishing the book because it took me a week to begin liking the book. I really enjoyed reading it — I love Hemingway’s noun-verb style, simple and always moving. I like the speed of events within the book, and his way of talking about war, death, and injury — sharp, gruesome, and brutal. Like war.

He wrote in a way that no one had ever written before, and he transformed what might have been a boring love story into an angry meditation on life and war. Why did Catherine have to die? She didn’t, but war is insensitive to reason. Why did the baby have to die? He didn’t, but death does not care about pathos.

I began to like this book not because of how it ends in in of itself, but because the ending is a reflection of Hemingway’s worldview. He lived through a horrendous war, and found no meaning in it. He did not know what he fought for. He did not see the world become a better place. World War One gave Hemingway’s generation a profound distrust in any higher purpose or meaning of life. For them life, like war, was absent of reason or grace or meaning. There was no reason for Frederic to have a happy ending, because happy ending do not exist.

I’m not sure what’s next on my reading list (couldn’t do Lolita), but there’s a good chance that more modernist disillusionment will be coming your way!

 

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Uncomfortable

Just finished A Farewell to Arms; just started reading Lolita. Initially, I’m drawn into Humbert Humbert’s luminous prose, but then I figured out that he’s crazy and I’m getting creeped out. Also, coincidentally, ran into a few profiles of the recent movies Nymphomaniac and Don Jon. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the sexual abnormality (whatever we define as abnormal). I’m uncomfortable. I’m ready to stop.

I’m trusting in the consensus of history that Nabokov is worth plowing through. It kind of let me down on Hemingway (I love Old Man and the Sea, and his short stories, but I probably should have read For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of Farewell). Book reviews of both to come.

 

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Rabbits Are Like People

 

 

 

Has anyone read Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, or David Clement-Davies’s Fire-BringerThey’re kids/young adult novels about animals who act like people, live in a pseudo-medieval world, and fight evil animals. Unfortunately, I read those books when I was eight, and read what is apparently the original anthropomorphic modern novel, Watership Down, ten years later. 

Watership Down is about rabbits who are exiled from their home, wander across England, and attempt to create a new home for themselves. They face sickness, humans, visions, brain-washed rabbits, dogs, bad weather, and the evil General Woundwort, who I guess looks something like this:

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This book, written in 1972, describes various forms of adaptation to the trials of life, and various ways to organize society in answer to those challenges. Cowslip’s brainwashed warren seems to represent socialism and resignation, while General Woundwort’s oppressive regime represents totalitarianism. Hazel’s warren eventually establishes democracy on the downs. 

So a book about rabbits tells us that democracy is the best form of society, which I agree with. But when I read this book, as when I read Animal Farm, left me dissatisfied. On the one hand, disguising a social critique as a kid’s novel is brilliant. On the other hand, I wanted the story to be more complex. If it’s going to be about an epic journey, let it be about an epic journey. If it’s going to be a complex social message, then it actually needs to be complex. There are good reasons to choose communism and socialism over democracy, and not all leaders are dictators. 

This book was on nearly all “Top American Novel” lists. But, like Animal Farm, while it was influential in its time, and I appreciate the message, and I enjoyed the story, I’m not sure why we still regard it so highly. Have you read Watership Down? Would you place in on your list of best American novels?

Up next — let’s put an end to all this warfare between us. A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway, because it’s on my bookshelf. Although if someone tells me today that For Whom The Bell Tolls is a better novel, I might switch.

 

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Trapped Inside a Bell Jar

When I was 14 I went to my first of two art camps. Everyone else was older than me, and most of them were poets. I wrote a lot of bad poetry, trying to be cool. The other kids raved about bell hooks and Sylvia Plath, whom I knew nothing about, and I started working my way through The Cool Art Kids’ Pantheon, mostly modern, edgy poetry. After four years of dodging, I finally borrowed The Bell Jar from a friend’s bookshelf.

I finished the book a week ago, the night that I had to finish a big paper and study for a Geology test. Frankly, I didn’t have much time to think about it. I did not especially enjoy reading it, and I was ready to move on. I had a stack of Daniel Woodrell books waiting on my shelf.

But in the week since finishing Esther’s story, little pieces have kept popping into my head. Esther’s episode of feeling trapped inside a Bell Jar, and her flight into the woods, struck me. Her feeling of uselessness at the Ladies’ Day magazine reflect my and every young writer’s fears of insignificance. Plath had a few beautiful turns of phrase, and described electroshock therapy and Esther’s depressive episodes in the way that only someone who has experienced depression can. She bridges the gap for people who have not experienced depression, but does such a good job of the sticky, floating feelings of despair that it made me feel sick. And my argument would be that those feelings don’t resolve — we see Esther entering the interview room to find out if she can leave the hospital, but we don’t know if she does, and if she ever reaches a stable existence.

It’s not that I want a happy ending. And it’s not that I’m against endings that leave questions, and let the reader decide if Esther achieves some measure of happiness. It’s that the book seems mired in Plath’s own depression, the depression that eventually killed her. At the risk of sounding insensitive, Plath made the author’s mistake of letting her own despair cloud her ability to resolve a story.

I learned a lot by reading this book, and I did enjoy and appreciate pieces of Plath’s writing, just not the book as a whole.

I tweeted this sentiment on #readwomen2014, hoping for some feedback, and some comments on why Plath is considered a foundational writer of the 20th century. I understand the aspect of challenging women’s place in society, and the aspect of describing depression, but I don’t exactly think that the book as a book should be on the top 20 list. I got some great responses.

I guess I need to find Ariel, and dive into that.

Have you read Plath? Why should or shouldn’t she be considered an important American author?

Up next: Rabbits acting like people in Watership Down.

Have you read Plath’s work?

 

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