The Handmaid’s Tale-Some Thoughts

When I read The Handmaid’s Tale in February 2017, little did I know how much this novel by contemporary Canadian author Margaret Atwood (born 1939) would be in the press a few months later. As it turned out, it was serialized for Hulu, a video on demand service, with the season premiere having been broadcast in late April. Because the title is so hot at present, I decided to join the fray.

The book was on my TBR list for a long time and I finally relented to my nagging literary conscience. The Handmaid’s Tale was my first exposure to a bestselling writer who has garnered too many literary honors to mention, and been nominated for many more. I am no particular fan of dystopian literature, and since my exposure to required classics like 1984, Brave New World, and Animal Farm in high school, I have not often delved into this genre. Even though I can’t claim to have liked Margaret Atwood’s story, I am, nonetheless, glad I read it.

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a futuristic, theocratic, totalitarian state (presumably the US), where environmental degradation has engendered infertility in many women, the ruling-class families keep “handmaids” for the sole purpose of procreation. These maids are put through a process of brainwashing and are not supposed to have their own thoughts or opinions. The novel’s “heroine”, if she deserves this title, is Offred. This translates to “Of Fred”, based on the name of the man she is assigned to, as she is not entitled to her own. Her only reason to exist is to bear healthy children to the so-called elites. To optimize the human birthing machine, her monthly hormonal fluctuations are minutely monitored. When the time is right, the handmaids undergo a ritual cleansing, before exposing only the prerequisite body part to their perpetrators, in a grotesque and dehumanizing “ceremony”.

Despite the system’s best efforts at enforcing subjugation and conformity, Offred remembers a life before the takeover. During an attempt to flee to a neighboring country (presumably Canada), she and her family were overtaken. Her husband was almost certainly assassinated, and her daughter abducted and adopted by one of the leading families. Offred’s dream of a reunion motivates her to keep on living, if that is what her existence can be called, instead of escaping it through suicide, a popular way out for many handmaids, despite the rulers best attempts at removing all means to effect it.

Offred’s hope is buoyed when she meets a fellow servant who, like herself, does not appear fully assimilated, even if she can’t be sure that this other woman is not a spy. Dissenters who are caught suffer a horrendous public execution portrayed in bone-chilling detail. When Offred is picked up by a van, the usual means of apprehending and transporting traitors to these show trials, neither she nor the reader knows if her captors represent friends or foes, and the tale culminates in this cliffhanger.

While I found it impossible to “enjoy” the nightmarish world created by Margaret Atwood, I enjoyed her masterful narrative style. The degree to which the choice and pace of language reflected Offred’s inner and outer life was remarkable. Her tedium and boredom were expressed by ambling phrases, her fear and panic by staccato-like sentences. Despite my constant sense of reluctance, the book was a page-turner.

The fear of totalitarian regimes, the loss of women’s rights, and the destruction of habitat is as relevant today as it was in 1985, when the novel was first published. Is it the responsibility of literature to address and elucidate current concerns, rather than to simply entertain? To prodesse aut delectare (instruct and delight), as Horace posited, or merely to delectare? What are your thoughts?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/der-report-der-magd-eine-buchrezension

A Visit to Catherland

Willa Cather (1873-1947), one of my favorites among America’s great authors, spent her formative years between nine and sixteen in Red Cloud, in south-central Nebraska. The scenery of the Great Plains seared itself into her psyche and suffused much of her writing. She might be best known for her so-called prairie trilogy, which comprises O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918), but others among her twelve novels are redolent of that setting. In the early 20th century, when pioneer life along the American Frontier was not considered worthy of literary pursuit, Willa Cather broke the mold and became herself a pioneer, with regard to theme, women’s central roles in their spheres, and her hallmark prose, evocative of place.

Even though American Indians had survived, even thrived, in the challenging environment of the High Plains, for those on a quest to conquer the West following the Civil War, this land posed a conundrum. Unlike the agricultural areas in the eastern states and in Europe, it was seemingly barren. Many settlers concurred with the impression of the first explorers traversing the area in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, who had referred to it as “The Great American Desert”.

For Willa herself, it wasn’t love at first sight. When she arrived in Nebraska’s Webster County in 1883 from her birthplace in Virginia, the transition from the green lushness to the semi-aridity of the High Plains was confounding. She reminisced later, “This country was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand. I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake.” Her eventual fondness of the native flora is epitomized in a 1921 interview, “There is one book I would rather have produced than all of my novels. That is Clements Botany dealing with the wild flowers of the west.” While Willa Cather sings the praises of the raw beauty and intricate design of that carpet woven of native wildflowers and grasses, she simultaneously admires the soil’s arable potential and refers to the generosity of the earth willing to subject itself to the plow and to human industry, to yield a harvest that benefits humankind, provided it is treated with understanding and respect.

Sparked by my own acquaintance with a number of Willa Cather’s narratives, and fanned by my growing fascination with the Great Plains which also occupy a vast portion of Colorado, I finally fulfilled the long-held wish to make a literary pilgrimage to Red Cloud in October 2015. Thanks to the Willa Cather Foundation, it is possible to tour original sites and buildings important in the writer’s life which she immortalized in many of her stories, along with some of her contemporaries.

Willa Cather`s childhood home

Willa Cather`s bedroom in the unheated attic

The later Cather Family home. Willa wrote in the second floor bedroom whenever she visited Red Cloud.

Since nature plays such a prominent role in her work, I was profoundly moved by the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. These 612 formerly overgrazed and herbicide-treated acres had, nonetheless, never been touched by a plow. Acquired by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, they were subsequently transferred to the Willa Cather Foundation. Located a short distance south of Red Cloud, they exemplify the successful restoration of a portion of original grassland. It is heartening to see a biome revert back to its original state, albeit only with a concerted effort. It took and still takes many hands to pull or burn invasive weeds and to reintroduce native grasses and wildflowers. Controlled intermittent grazing simulates the cyclical visitations by American bison when they still roamed vast regions of the continent.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Like the pioneers who inhabited Willa Cather’s universe, the present-day caller is greeted by the picturesque prospect of rolling hills rippling in Nebraska’s relentless breeze. I am confident that she would embrace this natural treasure named in her honor. Just as we devotees want her stories and characters to live on, so should the landscape which gave them life.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/ein-besuch-im-catherland/

Geraldine Brooks: Some Thoughts on her Books

I had my first encounter with the eloquent writing of Geraldine Brooks in her novel Year of Wonders (2001), about the 1666 outbreak of bubonic plague in Eyam, an English village. It brings the horrors of the epidemic alive through the eyes of the maid Anna whose life is derailed in unforeseen ways. She evolves from an exploited servant without rights to a powerful, independent woman, a transformation unthinkable without the horrendous happenings in her world. The breathtaking plot which is permeated with poetic currents aroused my curiosity about the author, and I have since read her entire oeuvre.

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Brooks (born 1955) started her career in journalism and her first books were non-fiction. Nine Parts of Desire (1994) deals with the lives and challenges of Muslim women in more or less misogynistic societies and is as relevant today as two decades ago. Foreign Correspondence (1997) celebrates her reunions with international pen pals from her childhood years in Australia, resulting in some very poignant moments. I find both works extremely well written and informative.

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Following the international bestseller, A Year of Wonders, her second novel, March (2005), soared even higher and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It envisions the experiences of the father of the March family from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, during the American Civil War. Besides Ms. Alcott’s beloved classic, Geraldine Brooks credits her husband, fellow writer and civil war buff, Tony Horwitz, with the inspiration for the story.

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People of the Book (2008) imagines the convoluted journey of an actual illuminated manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish text used in the celebration of Passover Seder, which disappeared temporarily from the library in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. It portrays a fascinating account of Europe’s history between the close of the Middle Ages and the present.

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Caleb’s Crossing (2011) presents another female first person narrator, Bethia Mayfield, a Puritan girl in Martha’s Vineyard in 17th century Colonial America. Her missionary father wants to convert the local Wampanoag tribe to Christianity and tutors Caleb, son of a local leader, in order to enable him to enter Cambridge College as the first American Indian. Bethia, starved for education, steals snippets of information from her brother’s lessons from which she is excluded, and befriends Caleb. Both actions break many sacrosanct taboos of the era. She represents what might have been, had more colonists been more curious and less prejudiced about the original inhabitants of North America.

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Even though I anticipated Brooks’s most recent publication in 2015 and purchased it soon thereafter, I did not actually read it until a few weeks ago which prompted me to put down these reflections. The Secret Chord details the age of the biblical King David and his large entourage about 1000 BC. It arcs from his childhood, characterized by his father’s and brothers’ contempt, to his rise from shepherd to King Saul’s protégé, after his slaying of Goliath, to his own career as King of a united Judah and Israel. Guided by the prophet Natan, who is able to foresee calamity, but not forestall it, David is human — with human strengths and foibles. Tribal and family feuds are brought on by polygamy, adultery, incest, warfare, treachery, fratricide and several attempts at regicide, yet it ends on a conciliatory note, namely the crowning of King Solomon, David’s son, and with the promise of a brighter and more peaceful future. While the writing characteristically is a mixture of suspenseful action and lyrical reflection on nature’s beauty, and David’s legendary skills as a poet and accomplished harpist, I could have done without the vivid descriptions of brutal dismemberments and disembowelments, and the lurid portrayal of a violent rape.

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Geraldine Brooks has a predilection for historical fiction which corresponds to my own. Her extremely well-researched stories bring events, people, and even the language of bygone times to a luminous life. I can’t wait for the future fruits of her pen, and for the comments of other fans.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version :

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/geraldine-brooks-bucherrezension/

My 2016 Pulitzer Reading List

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the ever-growing canon of literature. Like many readers, I whittle away at the “classics”, and I am (very) slowly making progress (see my review of Don Quixote), but I also want to keep up with more recent publications. To familiarize myself with “good” American writing, I opted to explore prose which has garnered a Pulitzer Prize, even though several alternative book honors might be substituted as guides to excellence.

Joseph Pulitzer immigrated to the United States from Hungary in the 19th century and became a journalist and newspaper publisher. The eponymous prizes are funded from his bequest to Columbia University in New York. The Pulitzer for the Novel was established in 1917, but was first granted in 1918, and was later renamed Pulitzer for Fiction. Because it was skipped in some years, as of the beginning of 2017, there have been 89 recipients, with the 90th expected to be announced in May. My journey through the Pulitzer realm has been haphazard, as I don’t follow a thematic or chronologic order. So far I have been guided by tomes already in my library. In 2016, I enjoyed the following three titles.

After my acquaintance with A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay about the challenges facing women writers, and her influential Mrs. Dalloway, I felt prepared to immerse myself in Michael Cunningham’s 1999 winner, The Hours. A modern-day re-interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway which bears the title originally intended for it, it is similarly intriguing and disturbing as the original, stream-of-consciousness narrative. The parallel and intertwined stories afford glimpses into the lives of Virginia Woolf, her novel’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, transported into contemporary times, and a woman in the 1950s whose perusal of Mrs. Dalloway alters her reality. If you enjoy unforeseen surprises and plot twists, you are in for a treat. I am aware of the 2002 Oscar-garnering movie version starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, but despite this cast, I have resisted the temptation to view it. In the vast majority of cases, I am disappointed by film versions of literary works, and the images on the screen have a tendency to overshadow those that arose in my own imagination.

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The 2015 recipient, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, sat on my shelf for nearly two years, but once I flipped over the first few pages of this story set in occupied France during World War II, there was no putting it back until I had suffered and cried with its main actors, even with some of the bad guys. It revolves around a French blind girl and a German orphan turned radio engineer. Their paths are swept up by the maelstrom of the war, and even though they only meet briefly toward the end, their lives have been interconnected much longer, without their knowing. This book illuminates the importance of characters who are complete human beings with motivations the reader can relate to, even if they prove to be monsters in some regard. As devastating as it might be, it at least left me with a sense of closure and a glimmer of hope.

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Pearl S. Buck who grew up in China thanks to her missionary parents and who went on to become a Nobel Laureate, received the Pulitzer in 1932 for The Good Earth. When I chose it from my collection, I was skeptical about the relevance of a farmer’s fate in pre-revolutionary China, but once I allowed the slightly archaic yet very lyrical language to wash over me, like a good summer’s rain, the leisurely action kept me absorbed. To illustrate humanity’s strength and weaknesses in the destiny of one person is remarkable, as is the protagonist’s insight that, despite wealth and progress, his existence is only worthwhile when lived in closeness with nature, the soil, the good earth, upon which our well-being depends. A timeless truth, and more relevant today than possibly ever. As I have since found out, this opus is the first part of a trilogy, though I have not tackled the sequels.

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Each of these gems is worthwhile to study again, but with only 11 down, and 78 (soon 79) to go, I am open to suggestions for my next read. Also, if you are familiar with any of the works mentioned above, I would love to hear your impressions.

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/meine-pulitzer-leseliste-2016/

For the Love of Books

When I realize that my sojourn in Germany coincides with the Frankfurt Book Fair, there is no question in my mind that I will attend. Despite living in Germany for the first two decades of my life, in those years I either lacked the opportunity, or the curiosity.

The annual five-day affair is tailored to facilitate the interaction between publishers and sellers, but the doors also open to the public for the last two days. It is a dream for any bibliophile. I delight in being surrounded by my favorite (and humanity’s most enduring) medium in myriad shapes, sizes, and languages, encompassing the gamut of fiction and non-fiction. One chosen country is featured in detail during each fair, and this year’s Guest of Honor is the Netherlands and Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.

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From Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Icelandic Sagas, to modern-day global megahits, such as the eighth (and supposedly final) installment of Harry Potter, one gains an inkling of the breadth and depth of humankind’s literary accomplishments. Visitors range from children to seniors, attesting to the abiding appeal of books. The peaceful gathering of individuals originating from numerous nations, cultures, and religions, and our shared adoration of the printed word strengthens my belief in Homo sapiens, our common interests and ideals. The only shadow of this overall enchanting world results from the awareness that there is no way to taste even a fraction of the perpetual stream of novel tomes and volumes of literature.

As soon as I arrive at the venue, I regret my decision to leave my camera at home. In addition to the beautiful displays, it would have been fun to record various attendees dressed as their favorite character, a visual proof of the powerful sway of our imaginary realms. I am grateful to have shared this madness with circa 277,000 fellow addicts, united by our mutual love of books. After all, there are multiple less edifying addictions.

Click here for the German Version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/aus-liebe-zum-buch/

Back to La Mancha-Some Thoughts

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote loomed on my literary horizon for over 30 years, ever since I enjoyed a portion of a German translation as a teenager. Still venerated as one of the masterpieces of world literature, Cervantes (1547-1616) published part one in 1605, but required the impetus of a fake sequel by another writer to complete part two, which appeared only one year before his death. This summer, I finally tackled the 2003 English translation by Edith Grossman, extolled by experts and critics.

It took three cycles of borrowing the 940 page volume from the library before I finished it, as fellow readers were as eager for a copy as I, a testament to its enduring popularity. This intermittent, but extended interaction over the course of three months enhanced my enjoyment, since I didn’t simply plow through it. During each enforced hiatus, I imagined what might be happening to my newfound friends, and looked forward to spending time with them again.

As a refresher, here is a very abbreviated cast of characters, followed by a brief plot summary:

-Don Quixote of La Mancha, namesake and protagonist, knight errant

-Rocinante, his nag, as thin and haggard as his master

-Sancho Panza, his erring squire

-The Gray, Sancho’s donkey

Don Quixote, a member of Spain’s impoverished gentry, has too much time on his hands which he fills with the study of romances of chivalry. These engender the unquenchable thirst to revive the lost tradition of knight errantry. He employs a local peasant, Sancho, as his squire, and they set out into rural Spain looking for adventures, all in an attempt to win the heart and hand of the Lady Dulcinea of Toboso, a figment of Quixote’s fancy, inspired by a real woman in the locality. In his single-mindedness he interprets every event in the tradition of the stories of old, and sees everywhere damsels in distress, and wrongs that need to be righted. Sancho Panza starts out with some common sense, but this is gradually replaced by a Folie à deux, as he embraces Don Quixote’s delusions.

Even though he is intelligent and extremely well spoken during lucid moments, the self-proclaimed knight is considered mad by most. During the first part of the novel, he actively drives the action with his misguided attempts to provide unsolicited assistance for which he suffers brutal physical attacks and punishments. In the sequel, he is passively drawn into a maelstrom of situations staged by his fellow human beings, which seem to support his imaginary world, and which he is unable to resist. Either way, he is ridiculed and demeaned. One might view Quixote as misguided, mistaken, or insane, but one feels sympathy for his quest which is all-encompassing, and gives meaning to his life, even to the detriment of his health and standing in society.

Frequently described as a proto-novel, Don Quixote is significant for the author’s masterful language, his profound sense of humor, and the careful and loving depiction of his characters. I found his deliberate use of synonyms and meandering narrative with a thousand subplots liberating, refreshing, and therapeutic, because they stand in stark contrast to much modern-day writing which tends to be terse. His autobiographic, historic, and literary allusions paint a detailed picture of his time and background. Even though I was briefly tempted to skip a portion when weighing the hefty work, I soon realized that I did not want to miss out on anything that befell our heroes, once I allowed myself to travel along at Rocinante’s and the Gray’s pace, and to take innumerable detours along small country roads.

Satisfied to have waded through the depth of Cervantes’s masterpiece, I am nonetheless sad to have closed the tome. Contrary to the tale’s ending, in my mind, his immortal creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza continue to travel the chivalric heavens, still prepared to right all wrongs, when they are not arguing about Sancho’s stringing together of proverbs. While the knight errant is on the lookout for fresh exploits, sitting in his saddle on Rocinante while leaning on his lance, erring Sancho is filling his corpulent paunch with vittles and generous swigs from a wineskin, before drifting off to carefree sleep.

Have you read Don Quixote? What did you think of it?

Click here for the German version/klicken Sie bitte hier für die deutsche Version:

https://tanjaschimmel.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/meine-ritterliche-reise-eine-buchrezension/