Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone…”
Gone is the key word. Gone.
I really did not want to read this book, not my normal genre. Published back in 1986 and now a HUGELY successful TV series on HULU, it is once again zipping up the NYT bestsellers list. So, I figured, I better read it. It took 2 days. Written in first person and full of dark and foreboding and downright scary dystopian scenarios, it is not something you want to peruse before sliding off to sleep.
The story takes place now or in the very near future. Due to many factors; pollution, radiation, pesticides and so on, the birth rate has bottomed out. Women are mostly sterile as are many men. In swoops this new literal-minded theocratic dictatorship. The Constitution and Congress are no longer—the Republic of Gilead is created on a platform of the Seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have forever been underneath the modern-day America we thought we knew and loved.
A new society is shaped and formed and for most, if not all, the word freedom is simply gone. And guess who is running things now? The elites of this new regime. It is they who arrange to have fertile women “assigned” to their households so that they, in turn, can have children. These, of course, are the Handmaids. Now if that isn’t creepy enough, stick with me.
So, a Handmaid (a woman who can bear children and most likely has already and they were taken from her and given to, the rich!) is assigned to a prominent couple. The wife is sterile, the husband could be, but since men run things, he plants the proverbial seed with the wife there in the room holding the Handmaid! I know. And if the wife suspects her husband is indeed sterile, well, there’s always the gardener or the driver or…there is always someone. So, the household becomes more powerful, the ‘Commander’ as the head/man of the house is called, rises up in rank the more children he can ‘gather.’
The tale is narrated by a Handmaid who goes by the name ‘Offred.’ It is entirely told in first person, through her eyes and via her voice only. This is a spare and dark and tense story of survival. By using backstory (tons and tons) the reader is given a glimpse into how things were before it all fell so terribly apart. When women held jobs, had bank accounts and wore all sorts of different clothing and read books or paged through a magazine. All this and so much more is gone. Gone.
If it weren’t for author Atwood’s incredible command of the language, I think I might have tossed this book across the room. Stomped on it even. There was not one ounce of humor either. Gone. Here she describes the promise of a fashion magazine:
“Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise was immortality.”
In the end, this new world turns inside out and reshapes into something else. It too is; Gone.
• Book Clubs Beware!
• Remember, it’s fiction
• Or is it…

View all my reviews

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone…”
Gone is the key word. Gone.
I really did not want to read this book, not my normal genre. Published back in 1986 and now a HUGELY successful TV series on HULU, it is once again zipping up the NYT bestsellers list. So, I figured, I better read it. It took 2 days. Written in first person and full of dark and foreboding and downright scary dystopian scenarios, it is not something you want to peruse before sliding off to sleep.
The story takes place now or in the very near future. Due to many factors; pollution, radiation, pesticides and so on, the birth rate has bottomed out. Women are mostly sterile as are many men. In swoops this new literal-minded theocratic dictatorship. The Constitution and Congress are no longer—the Republic of Gilead is created on a platform of the Seventeenth-century Puritan roots that have forever been underneath the modern-day America we thought we knew and loved.
A new society is shaped and formed and for most, if not all, the word freedom is simply gone. And guess who is running things now? The elites of this new regime. It is they who arrange to have fertile women “assigned” to their households so that they, in turn, can have children. These, of course, are the Handmaids. Now if that isn’t creepy enough, stick with me.
So, a Handmaid (a woman who can bear children and most likely has already and they were taken from her and given to, the rich!) is assigned to a prominent couple. The wife is sterile, the husband could be, but since men run things, he plants the proverbial seed with the wife there in the room holding the Handmaid! I know. And if the wife suspects her husband is indeed sterile, well, there’s always the gardener or the driver or…there is always someone. So, the household becomes more powerful, the ‘Commander’ as the head/man of the house is called, rises up in rank the more children he can ‘gather.’
The tale is narrated by a Handmaid who goes by the name ‘Offred.’ It is entirely told in first person, through her eyes and via her voice only. This is a spare and dark and tense story of survival. By using backstory (tons and tons) the reader is given a glimpse into how things were before it all fell so terribly apart. When women held jobs, had bank accounts and wore all sorts of different clothing and read books or paged through a magazine. All this and so much more is gone. Gone.
If it weren’t for author Atwood’s incredible command of the language, I think I might have tossed this book across the room. Stomped on it even. There was not one ounce of humor either. Gone. Here she describes the promise of a fashion magazine:
“Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise was immortality.”
In the end, this new world turns inside out and reshapes into something else. It too is; Gone.
• Book Clubs Beware!
• Remember, it’s fiction
• Or is it…

View all my reviews

Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Light Between Oceans
By M.L. Stedman

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

Author Stedman wove together a tale of choice and consequence and tossed in an isolated island and carefully pieced it together for the reader to witness and then judge the outcome. The ending surprised me and no—I’m not telling.
Most of the novel takes place on a one square mile island called Janus Rock, over a hundred miles from the Australian mainland. Tom Sherbourne has returned from WWI and though he appears in perfect health, what he carries inside haunts his every dream.
“Tom isn’t one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, of whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels…But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.”
The small village of Point Partageuse on the south-western corner of the Australian continent is where the beginning of this story is set—as well as the end. Here is where Janus Rock lighthouse is based and it is where Tom meets his future wife, Isabel Graysmark. Together they move to Janus Rock and begin a life that at first seems straight from a Nickolas Sparks novel. At first.
“Tom dashed to his desk for paper and pen. He sat down to write, before realizing he had no idea what to say. He didn’t want to say anything: just send her a smile.”
It drips romance. Those two love-birds. Well, one thing led to another and after not one, or two, oh no, author Stedman drags the reader through three miscarriages and then something seems to save the day. Everything has a price. A rowboat washes ashore and the novel races into a storm that lashes out and nearly destroys them both; inside this small vessel is a dead man and, of course, a newborn baby that is very much alive.
“He handed her the bundle, and tried again to revive the stranger: no pulse. He turned to Isabel, who was examining the diminutive creature. “He’s gone, Izz. The baby? It’s all right, by the looks. No cuts or bruises. It’s so tiny! There, there. You’re safe now, little one. You’re safe, you beautiful thing.”
Safe. And of course, the baby they found has a birth mother on the edge of insanity with worry. Wondering where her new-born infant and husband with a weak heart have gone to? This is where the story fell into a predictable, dread-loaded formulaic pattern. With nearly unbelievable layers of story, I trudged on with Isabel and Tom and this newly found little life they named Lucy. One of the saving graces of Stedman’s angst-filled novel is the writing. It’s simply beautiful. And, I seem to have a weakness for island-settings, so there was that as well since Janus Rock is really more of a character than the setting.
This is a story of choices and a reminder that even if a man (and a woman) live on an island, life will come and find you.

• Great for Book Clubs
• What would you have done?

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Review: The Hearts of Men

 

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

 

This is a guy’s book; a grownup Boy Scout’s novel. It’s for some women too. Women who have loved bad men who broke their heart or men who came home from war, lugging the war with and—it’s about love and loss and hope. And underneath, it’s about revenge.

One of the main characters is the setting, a fictionalized Boy Scout camp situated on a chunk of beautiful land north of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, nestled along Bass Lake. The impressive collection of human characters in this story spans six decades and three generations, but swims around and around author Butler’s main Boy Scout; Nelson. Early on, when Nelson is a young man at camp, he is given some advice that follows (and haunts) him for the rest of his life.

“…the truth is, not all of these boys will become good men…good human beings. We do our best, try our damnedest to guide them, and instruct them. But in the end…Some boy in this room will become a murderer; another, a bank robber. Some of these boys will cheat on their taxes, others on their wives.”

As the interconnected storylines unfold, many of Nelson’s ‘friend’s’ lives unravel into divorce, murder, booze and loneliness. Through it all, Butler manages to wrap everyone’s life around some core Scout beliefs that if you walk with a moral code of good in your back pocket, somehow things could turn out. Or not.

“And now Jonathan turns his back on the younger boy, moves his head out of the tent, into the rain, “Sometimes,” he begins quietly, “I think you get mixed up in something, and it’s like stepping into a river. The current takes you and the next thing you know, you’re swimming…” He stands up fully and is gone, the flaps undulating behind him like green canvas curtains.”

On several occasions, stepping into a new scene or chapter, I had to backtrack in order to find the story thread forward. Once on track, the story moved onward in ways I found both exhilarating and very, very dark. Like life. Though female characters are few, one stands out, Rachel. Her inner thoughts are rich, rough, raw and sadly true.

“She’ll never marry again. Why would she? And it isn’t that she even desires another husband, or even, for that matter, a man, a lover. Men bore her, frankly. If only it weren’t so lonely, fighting the single-parent fight. Wouldn’t it be nice, she thinks, to simply have someone to confide in? Who had dinner ready when she came home from work?…To help pay the bills, carry the garbage out, remove a dead mouse from the basement…Just the kind of garden-variety male come-on a woman endures all the time until, of course, her body ages into simple invisibility.”

As the pages literally fly by and the ending lands neatly around you, Butler leaves you with a small ray of hope. And isn’t that what a really good read should do?

 

  • Soon to be a movie
  • Wisconsin Author
  • MORE has it—run!

Review: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Wherever You Go, There You Are
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wherever You Go, There You Are
By Jon Kabat-Zinn

Reviewed by Jay Gilbertson

The rest of the title is; ‘Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life’ and though it was written in 1994, the concept is pretty timeless. And since the political landscape has gotten so charged, I figured it would be helpful. Similar to Eckhart Tolle’s book, ‘The Power of Now’ author Kabat-Zinn stresses the importance of being present.
Not being a present as in gift, but stepping into your life with clarity and presence of mind is the key element discussed in this guide. This is harder than you may think. One of the linchpins that the author shares, and I find useful, is to focus on breath. Don’t worry that you have to have a fancy chant, use some kind of shrine or bang on a gong. You don’t. But you do have to breathe. The author says it best;
“Think the grass is always greener somewhere else or life is better in someone else’s shoes? If so, life will constantly disappoint you. True contentment comes from within—and you can uncover the spiritual treasure buried within you through meditation.”
“Blending Western thought and Eastern practice, this is the book that introduced meditation to America…you can learn the simple practice of breathing and focus to keep yourself in the present…to let stress wash over you rather than try to shut it out…find strength where you least expect it and even take charge of your health by adjusting your perspective.”
One aspect of this book/guide I did find a tad confusing was the explanation of just exactly what is meditation. Being a semi-normal dude I want to know how it’s done, right? As if there’s this exercise that I can latch onto and power through and when I’m done, and catch my breath, I’ll have this sudden clarity. Well, it’s not as simple as that and this is why the author spends a great deal of time using metaphor and quotes to give the reader examples of meditation.
“Meditation is more rightly thought of as a “Way” than as a technique. It’s a way of being, Way of living, a Way of listening, a Way of walking along the path of life and being in harmony with things as they are.”
In other words, it isn’t something you do in physical terms, though breathing is pretty important, it is a state of mental ‘being-ness.’ Put another way, meditation isn’t a way to change how you think by thinking more. It’s the act of watching, observing thought. This is where so many who want to bring this practice into their daily lives seem to get stuck.
Being ‘mindful’ is another way of considering this.
“TRY: Setting aside a time every day for just being. Five minutes would be fine…Sit down and watch the moments unfold, with no agenda other than to be fully present. Use the breath as an anchor to tether your attention to the present moment. Your thinking will drift here and there, depending on the currents and winds moving in the mind, until, at some point, the anchor-line grows taut and brings you back to the breath in all its vividness, every time it wonders…Think of yourself as a mountain.”

• Mindful groups are forming all over
• Take a walk
• Be present

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