The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Even those people in my book club who were put off by the perception that this book was science fiction found it not just readable but impossible to put down. I first read it twenty years ago, and wondered if I would still find it as terrifyingly plausible as I did then.

The answer is yes. Even more so.

Offred is the handmaid in this story and gives a first-person account of her life under the Gilead regime, a political and cultural system put in place ten years previously, a system which is quite simply the logical extension of what the neo-conservatives and religious right of today say they want: a “return” to the “good old days” when rich and powerful white men ruled with Bibles in hand, and women and minorities knew their place.

In a world where fertility rates have fallen disastrously low due to pollution, epidemics and a nuclear meltdown or two, babies and the ability to make them are prized above everything else. The only roles open to women are wife, housekeeper and baby-maker. The baby-makers are the handmaids, fertile women such as Offred who are given to powerful men to bear their babies, who are then given to the wives to rear as their own. Women are not allowed to hold jobs, attend school, manage money, even read or write. They must wear long loose robes, color-coded for their role—burkas, anyone?—and infractions draw drastic punishments: for a third offense of writing, a woman’s hand is cut off; enemies of the state are publicly hanged. Laws are based on the Bible, hence the servant women are called Marthas, and the handmaids are justified by the story of Jacob and Rachel.

As Offred describes her days and nights in what is obviously Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found myself wondering why she and others seemed to have accepted these changes so passively. After all, she still remembers her previous life and longs for the husband and child who have been taken from her. Yet, when she sees Japanese tourists on the street dressed in skirts and hose, she is shocked by how naked they look. How could she have become so accustomed to the Gilead culture, in just ten years? Then, as I was filling up my car at the gas station, I realised that it has only been a handful of years since gas prices tripled, creating huge profits for the gas companies. Yet in these few short years people—including myself—have come to accept these price increases, even if it is a grumbling acquiescence.

As Offred recounts the events leading up to the coup that created Gilead, I was reminded of Nazi Germany and the way people tolerated infringements of liberties of others until finally it was too late to protest the loss of their own freedom. There were many other echoes of past—and present!—times, such as the Puritans’ approach to justice, making everything just that much more believable. In a recent interview, Atwood said that there is nothing in this book that has not happened in some culture at some point in history.

I was shocked by how powerless this one woman was to prevent her life from imploding along with her cultural world. Yet there was nothing she could have done, save perhaps try sooner to escape to Canada. The book forced me to reflect on my own powerlessness and the precarious nature of the gains we have made. In my all-girls high school, the curriculum included only the most basic math and science because girls’ brains, of course, couldn’t handle such things. Twenty years ago, as an engineer I sat in a smoky office full of chain-smokers, watching unskilled men get promoted over me. We have come a long way, but we could lose it—and more—in an instant if we are not vigilant, if we don’t speak up.

The Testing of Luther Albright, by MacKenzie Bezos

Luther Albright is a civil engineer who not only designs dams but also designed and built his own home, alert to every one of its systems, constantly fine-tuning the wiring and plumbing. His family life as well seems pleasantly under control, with a loving wife and an agreeable teenaged son. He seems to have a perfect life, until a minor earthquake exposes faults in its foundations.

Written in first person from Luther’s point of view, the events of the novel unfold through his language and interpretation. I can see why some people in my book club found this first novel bland and mundane, but I really liked it. Bezos perfectly captured the way some engineers—often the most competent—lack people skills that the rest of us take for granted. Luther was an extreme example, but I certainly know people like him.

I liked Luther. I felt for him. He thought he was doing the right things, both in his professional life and his home life, not realising that he didn’t understand his family's, his co-workers', or indeed his own emotional needs.

The story is organized around a series of “tests” to which Luther is subjected, and part of the mystery is understanding what the tests are, why they are being administered, and who the force is behind them. As Luther struggles, long-buried memories of his childhood begin to surface. I found myself thinking about the various ways we find to express love, resentment and other emotions.

Bezos did a fabulous job of taking us through these shifting relationships with friends and family. I also liked the way office life was presented. Bezos really captured those co-worker relationships: close without being close, familiar without necessarily liking each other. She described so well the way alliances shift between being competitive and supportive.

I don't think the book would have worked if written in any other point of view. For me, what made it interesting was seeing what was going on inside Luther's head. My only minor complaint was that the wife and son were a bit too good to be believable. But I highly recommend the book. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of this deceptively simple story.

Wish You Were Here, by Stewart O’Nan

This novel is set in Chautauqua, where a family prepares to sell their long-time summer home. I enjoyed it a great deal—in fact, I picked it up off a table when I was at camp (yes, adults too sometimes go to summer camp) and became so engrossed that I inadvertently walked off with it, much to the dismay of the book's owner who ended up searching all over camp for it. Needless to say, I was terribly embarrassed about having stolen his book but that didn’t stop me reading it straight through once he was done with it.

Part of what fascinated me was that O’Nan’s description of the summer home took me back to the place on the Chesapeake Bay where we sometimes summered when I was a child. The musty smell, the cardboard walls, the odd-tasting water, the cluttered garage . . . all resonated with my own half-buried memories. But it was really when the adult “children” went upstairs to unpack that a shiver of recognition tore through me. The upstairs area, where they had slept when young, was one large room with beds at either end, just as ours was.

Rounding out the physical description of the home were the shifting relationships between the family members: alliances and competitions, informed by memories of past betrayals and allegiances. These, too, made me think of my adult siblings and the way our carefully distant relationships have been altered by the events of the past year as our remaining parent slipped away.

I thought O’Nan’s book absorbing and thought-provoking, but in coming to that judgment, how much of a factor were my memories? So often my response to art—whether a book or music or visual art—depends largely on what I bring to it. There have been many popular and award-winning books that I came to with high expectations only to be disappointed, as I was with The Dante Club a few weeks ago. Would I have liked them better if I had stumbled across them with no introduction, such as happened with Behind the Scenes at the Museum back in April? There have been paintings such as Charles Ritchie’s Study for “Pike” whose fascination for me might stem from the strong memories they evoke rather than from artistic merit (however defined).

In the translation class I’m taking, we discussed Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator” in which he says that “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an ‘ideal’ receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such. Art, in the same way, posits man's physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.”

As a writer, I understand and agree with the idea that you cannot write for the reader, but out of yourself, the deepest, most authentic self you can summon. At the same time, I do care about the response of my readers. That is to say, I want them to respond. However, readers bring such a variety of experiences, prejudices, amities and antipathies to the table that there is no way to anticipate what their response will be and, judging from my book club’s discussions, their responses will vary considerably. I like Stephen King’s image of writing the first draft with his study door closed and the second draft with the door open.

The Sea, by John Banville

Max Morden is an “almost old” man who, after the recent death of his wife, returns to the village where he summered as a child. Despite the controlled narration and the delight he takes in language, he is clearly in a bad way and tries the patience of those around him, saying once that “if there is a long version of shrift”, that is what he needs.

Another story about a self-described “middling man”, I found this book hard to warm up to at first. The narrator is a pedantic man, precise and playful with words, but his word games, as with other tricks the narrator employs to hide his feelings from those around him and even from himself, have the additional effect of distancing the reader. This reader, anyway. I had trouble engaging with the character or his story, picking up the book an putting it down several times before it finally caught my attention through the sheer virtuosity of the writing.

If I were teaching a course on how to use vivid, unusual imagery to describe people, places, weather, mood, etc., I would assign this book as required reading. For example, Max hears a recently switched-off car “still clicking its tongue to itself in fussy complaint”, and “faintly from inside the house the melting-toffee tones of a palm court orchestra playing on the wireless.” I can’t remember the last time I picked up a dictionary while reading a novel, yet had to look up a dozen words here that were new to me yet wonderfully accurate for their context.

But what really won me over were the rare but devastating insights about childhood and loss and how memory works or doesn’t. Tossed in as almost casual asides, they made me read on, hungry for more.

The children, Max himself and the two children he becomes friends with, are anything but idealized. Max’s recollections openly portray their selfishness and cruelty, their curiously attractive coldness. One of the children is mute, though whether by choice or not is unclear. The uses and limitations of language, however, affect all of the characters and there is much employment of body language—scratchings and sprawlings and outstretched arms—as well as descriptions of freckles and noses and even body odours to convey what is happening. Max’s mother, afraid of the sea, would only play crocodile (as we used to call it) in a shallow pool but was dragged into deep water by her husband’s manacle-like grip on her wrists.

The sea is a continuous presence, binding the present to the past, enduring in the way that things do while people come and go. I would have said that I’ve read so many descriptions of the sea that no one could say anything new about it, yet again and again I was struck with fresh remembrance, thinking oh yes, I’ve known it like this.

At a certain point in life, it seems as though there is nothing left to do but count over the deaths of those we have loved and look forward to our own. Despite my initial difficulties, I was captivated by Max’s story as he, almost in spite of himself, began to reconnect with the past and present, this world and the people in it.

The Gate, by Soseki Natsume

Natsume is one of the greatest Japanese writers. I'm told that some of his books, though not this one, are part of the standard curriculum. Written in 1910, this is the story of Sosuke, a mid-level office worker who lives with his wife Oyone in a rented house at the bottom of a cliff. Childless after three miscarriages and stillbirths, they have drawn together, contra mundum, sitting in their parlor every evening on either side of the lamp that creates a circle of light in the dark world around them.

The book opens on a Sunday, the one day of the week when Sosuke doesn’t have to work, a day of melancholy for him, longed for but so quickly gone. There is so much that he wants to do, but he usually just ends up going for a walk and visiting the public bath. Although he lives and works in Tokyo, he cannot afford to enjoy its many pleasures. Sosuke and Oyone’s precarious finances become even further strained when they have to assume responsibility for Sosuke’s younger brother. Then Oyone’s health begins to fail.

These may seem like commonplace events, yet Soseki made me care deeply about these characters. After it was pointed out to me that the Japanese language does not have as many adjectives and adverbs as English, I noticed how plain the language in this book is. Thoughts and events are recounted sparingly, enhancing the bleakness of the characters’ lives while making the rare simile, when it comes, strike with great power.

I found the beginning of this book tremendously sad, entering into the mind of a man who can hardly bear the stress and tedium of his life, yet lacks the will to make a change. What I’ve heard about the lives of Japan’s salarymen gives new meaning to Thoreau’s remark about people living lives of quiet desperation. Last year when one of the trains in Tokyo was out of service, Jeremy said that it was probably because of a jumper, adding that there seemed to be at least one suicide every day.

Sosuke begins to become friends with his landlord Sakai who seems to have everything Sosuke desires: children, success, leisure, limitless funds. Sakai has a life, as people say nowadays. In one of their conversations, Sakai talks of his own younger brother who has become what Sakai calls an adventurer, traveling in Manchuria and Mongolia, hoping to make a fortune. To Sosuke, an adventurer is someone decadent and desperate, even corrupt. Yet it is hard for me not to wish that Sosuke had a little more of the adventurer in him. I thought of Lucinda Matlock from Spoon River: “It takes life to love life!”

Some parts of the book puzzled me, but the introduction by Peter Owen, which I did not read until after finishing the book, helped a great deal. As the gradual unfolding of Sosuke’s past begins to explain his current predicament, so Nietzsche’s image of the Gate of Eternal Return, where the past and future meet, helps to explain the meanings behind this remarkable book.