Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale Book Review

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've always heard that The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was one of those books you had to read. I picked it up at my favorite used book store: Falls River Books and nominated it for my book club's July selection. It was haunting, frustrating and I couldn't put it down. I was compelled to keep going from the narrator's first person voice when she tells us that she has to wear red and it's not her color. I thought to myself, here is a narrator in dire circumstances who still has some time to joke -- maybe I'll even like this person.

This person is the 33-year-old Offred whose real name is probably June. She is kept girl, or handmaiden, of Commander Fred and Serena Joy. Get it? She's "Of Fred." The other handmaidens also have male names such as Ofglen, Ofwarren and so forth. They dress in these medieval nun costumes of full head to toe red gowns with white headresses that prevent them from seeing the outside world and from the outside world seeing them. They hardly do any labor except going to the market once a day for their household and they aren't allowed to read. Offred has to have sex once a month with her master Fred PLUS his wife who is lying underneath her in this ceremony that hopefully will produce an heir for the commander.

The U.S. before the Republic of Gilead takeover was bleak: there was massive pornography, pollution, disease and suffering. The new leaders promised a change and boy did they deliver. June (the narrator), Luke, her husband, and their daughter who is never named try to cross the border into Canada, but June and daughter are captured. They are captured because women who is married to a divorced man is a sinner and adultress. We never know what happens to Luke. June is sent to handmaiden school since the government knows she has viable ovaries because she's already a mother and her daughter is adopted by a childless commander and his wife.

The commanders and their wives seem to be in their fifties and the young men are off fighting the wars. The poorer people are left alone and the undesirables (Unwomen) are sent to the Colonies to do toxic clean up detail without benefit of Hazmat suits. Offred's mother is one of the Unwomen since she is an unrepentant feminist.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the goings on in Offred's house and about how the other people in the house feel about her. We know right away there's an attraction between her and Nick, the Commander's manservant. Cora the maid likes her, while Rita the maid thinks she's a slut just because she's a handmaiden. Cora is perpetually afraid Offred will commit suicide because the last one they had did. Serena Joy dislikes her and the Commander sneaks around with her to play Scrabble (one of the funniest parts in the book).

The government hasn't taken everything away from Offred: she still remembers her daughter, her life before, her job, her husband and how it all ended. I was surprised they hadn't blanked her memory. Offred is a passive woman and she'd rather get along than claw her way through to freedom. She wants to live and thinks that if she keeps her head down and doesn't cause much trouble she'll do fine. Unfortunately,this can't be the case. In her small world she runs into Ofglen who is part of the resistance, and she interacts illegally with the two men living around her: the Commander and Nick. Events propel her forward and by virtue of who she is things happen. She is part of the political machine and their agenda for babies wherever she goes.

Unlike 1984 by George Orwell where we got the entire background and history of this dystopia all at once, in this book we get the history in bits and pieces. I liked how this book is like a puzzle and it's not all laid out for the reader. This pattern mirrors Offred's way of receiving information since she can't read and look up things; she has to get her knowledge in bits and pieces, too. By the end of the book, the reader should have a good idea of how Gilead came to be along with its rules and power structure.

Margaret Atwood criticizes both the right and the left in her novel. She's against feminists banning pornography since she feels that's censorship and Atwood's against the right taking arms against society's ills. The theme is that both sides can go to extremes and they do so in Handmaid's Tale.

This novel isn't dated and it still holds up well some 23 years after it was published. It's a haunting vision of what would happen if the people in charge decided to turn back the clock on womens' rights and strip women of their voices. Not only do women suffer, but so do men.

Read this book for Atwood's images, poetry and turns of phrase. Also read it for its well-thought out themes. I promise you, you'll never forget this book.

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Here are the discussion questions for this book:
The Handmaid’s Tale Reading Group Guide
1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?
2. In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy; she was their fantasy. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.
3. Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred's mother also represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?
4. At one level, The Handmaid's Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as "Context is all, " and "I've filled it out for her, " "I made that up, " and "I wish this story were different." Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?
6. The Commander in the novel says you can't cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instincts?
7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?
8. Babies are referred to as "a keeper, " "unbabies, " "shredders." What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?
9. Atwood's title brings to mind titles from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted you tomake that connection?
10. What do you feel the "Historical Notes" at the book's end add to the reading of this novel? What does the book's last line mean to you?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Don’t be Afraid of Going to the Social Media Party

Even if you don’t use social networking, i.e.: Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Inside 919 (ning) or other social media sites, for your business, it’s still important to join the social media party because if you don’t, you’re missing out. In fact, this week my mother-in-law just signed up for Facebook because she doesn’t want to miss out on all of the conversations going on between her progeny. And she wants to view all of the fantastic photos I’ve posted from our summer trips. The way the world is working now, people go to social media sites to find out what’s going on via their friends’ links and comments. I found out on Facebook that Walter Cronkite died almost as soon as it was announced and if you use Twitter, you can receive almost instantaneous news. We’re moving away from people going to websites to find out info; instead, users are more passive and are waiting for info to come to them via status updates, blog feeds, e-newsletters and more.
These last two weeks I’ve learned a great deal about social media from two local experts, Deidre Hughey (pictured above) and Eileen Batson, who spoke at my North Raleigh Coffee and Contacts group. Deidre discussed three rules of social networking and several mistakes people make about using this tool. Eileen discussed how to avoid the social media time suck.
According to Deidre Hughey, owner of The Buzz Builder in Apex, NC, social media is a great tool to build relationships and to get more people to know and trust you. Although she emphasizes, “Social media should not replace your marketing plan. It’s a tool like direct marketing or PR. Social media needs to be a part of your overall marketing plan; it’s a piece of a much larger puzzle. Deidre also spoke about not being afraid of filling out your profile block as completely as possible because, “you never know who is going to click on your site right after you fill it out. What if someone clicks and they find nothing there?” To counter the notion that many women think that the crazies will find them on Facebook or other sites, she told us that most people have a reason to friend you and if you don’t want them as a friend there are protection devices in place to block these people. “Have a plan to stay active and top of mind with your connections and commit to thirty minutes a day on your social media sites,” says Deidre.
Eileen Batson of Batson Group Marketing and PR in Raleigh agrees. She told us to set a consistent schedule and even use a kitchen timer to keep track of our time on the computer. “Write down what you need to do and avoid getting distracted,” Eileen says. She also said that you need to spend time where your clients are and if they aren’t using Facebook or Twitter, then you need to find another way to reach them.
This brings to mind running into a friend at Staples the other day where he was getting ink for his printer so he could send out a printed newsletter to his clients. He knew where his clients were and he knew that an online newsletter wouldn’t be as effective as a printed one.
Eileen also told us about leveraging our time with tools that update our status. She mentioned I use Tweetdeck to manage my Twitter and Facebook updates and when I post a video on YouTube, I link that post with Google Alerts, Facebook and Twitter.
Like most of you, I haven’t been on Facebook that long – I believe this month is my first year anniversary. Who would have thought that my entire family is now on it and that I rush to check my Facebook page before my email account? But we also need to bear in mind that Facebook and Twitter might not be around forever and we still need to have a website, blog and a marketing plan in place that’s not all based on social media. We also need to keep in mind that we can’t live our lives on the computer and it’s OK to not check in for a day every now and then.
So, what about you? How are you managing your social media time? Are you getting the most out of your social media networking? How has it benefited you in the last year both personally and professionally? I’d love to hear from you!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first heard about Middlesex's popularity at my favorite independent bookstore and among the book clubs seven years ago, I wasn't that interested in reading it. I mean, a Greek-American tale of a hermaphrodite? No thanks, I thought. But then Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides came up again when my book club (Wonderland Book Club) was discussing titles to read for this year and I agreed to give it a shot. Well, as you know I don't give many books a one out of five stars nor a book five out a five stars, yet Middlesex made the cut because it has heart, a strong narrative, a powerful unique storyline AND I learned something new. I learned about the Turkish invasion of Greek-ruled Asia Minor in 1922, the Detroit environs and the race riots there in 1967. I learned that the movie "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) came from the suburb, Grosse Point outside Detroit. This exclusive suburb is where our hero, Cal (nee Callie) grows into a teen and Middlesex, by the way, is the name of his house. Of course "Middlesex" also depicts Cal's sexuality. And I learned about hermaphroditism.

This very dense novel which took me longer to read than normal (I didn't finish it bofore book club, but neither did many of the fast-readers in my group) is broken into three parts. The first part addresses the story Cal's grandparents (Desdemona and Lefty) who are (SPOILER ALERT!) also brother and sister. It's a wonderful story of love and risk as the two flee Smyrna, on the Aegean Coast as the Turks (or maybe the Greeks) are burning it down. Because of their relationship, Cal has a genetic mutation on Chromosome 5, so he's born a "girl," with girl parts but is really an XY male with male secondary sex characteristics and a short penis (he calls it his "crocus"). But incest isn't new in Cal's family: many of the villagers from Bithynios were also hermaphrodites because of inbreeding and his grandparents' relationship just manifested things a bit faster. In this section we learn to love Desdemona, who fiercely clings to her Old World values and she and her brother hop on a boat to America and later Detroit, where they are sponsored by their lesbian cousin, Lina.

The second book is about Tessie, Lina's daughter and Milton, Lefty and Desdemona's daughter. This couple (Cal's parents) aren't as vivid, nor as memorable, but we need to mention them in order to get to Cal's birth and the start of his story. Throughout the next, Cal the first person narrator has an open and omnicient point of view. He's a very likeable voice and we want to keep turning the page to see what happens next. His point of view even veers to third person when he nears The details and images in this book are marvelous and we see a lot of play on the theme of air and water. Cal is born a Capricorn, which many believe is both a water and an earth sign -- just like Cal has a dual nature (Jesus was also born a Capricorn, but this is a discussion for another time). Eugenides, especially in Book 3, which is Cal's story, water imagery such as sea anemones, jelly fish and more when discussing what he sees in the girls' locker room at his private school.

For example, "Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates' legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. Higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving in the current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths."

I loved how Cal reflects on his world and how he knows he's different because of his class and ethnicity from the other girls who are white and whose grandparents weren't off the boat. He tells us about the Charm Bracelets, who are the elite white girls at the school and how his knows that the object of his affection, monikered the Obscure Object is one of them. "Her oxfords were stamped down at the heels so that she could slip into them like clogs. This was something the Charm Bracelets did. Also, she had an antique ring on her finger, with real rubies in it. Her lips were thin, austere, Protestant. Her nose was not really a nose at all. It was only a beginning."

All of Eugenides's narrator reflection really made the book for me. We care about how Cal's life turns out and we understand that he may have finally found Ms. Right at forty-one (the age he is presently writing this book). The novel tied up everything at the end from us learning that Cal never underwent any surgery to change his parts (so he remains "middlesex") and what happened to his parents and brother, appropriately nicknamed Chapter Eleven because he runs the family hot dog business into the ground. However, I was left to find out about how or where Cal finished high school and if he ever saw the Obsure Object again -- we'll never know. This was a great read that was honest, stayed classy, where it could have ventured off into crassness with the intersex stuff, and remained hopeful. Eugenides took seven years to write this book and I guess it might be awhile till we see his next work, but it'll be worth it.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Hiking the Shawangunks in New Paltz, NY

On Wed. July 8th, my husband Keith and I hiked in the Mohonk Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains (otherwise known as the "Gunks" -- one of the premier rock-climbing destinations in the world). In these this video we climbed up Bonitcou Crag via a rock scramble and were treated to a magnificent view of the lower Catskills.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Coffee Shop God Review

Coffee Shop God Coffee Shop God by Therese Bartholomew

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Therese Bartholomew's short, yet powerful memoir, Coffee Shop God takes the reader through the journey of a sister's grief of her lost brother. In 2003, two days before Valentine's Day, Therese's younger brother, Steve, was shot in the chest by Karl Staton at a Greenvile, SC-area strip club. Steve and Karl had an argument over Karl's girlfriend and Karl shot Steve in the heart, killing him instantly. The title of the book comes from Therese trying to find Steve so that she can have some hope. While in her neighborhood coffee shop, she meets a man who is also grieving and they comfort each other. She believes this is God's sign to her that Steve is in heaven and that there is a God.

This book is comprised of 10 essays which discuss the moment the family found out about Steve's death, to the days and weeks immediately following the tragedy, and, finally, to discovering the new normal of living in a world without Steve. Therese is a master of funneling the senses we ignore (smell, sound, taste and touch) into powerful word pictures that capture the moment without sentimentality or prolonged trauma. She is matter-of-fact in her delivery, yet poignant and emotionally raw all at the same time. Therese also lets her humor shine through, especially when she acknowleges how much time she spends in her pajamas with "pajamas are my favorite clothes."

Therese describes Steve as her soulmate. She says, "My little brother is alone somewhere, and I need to be there. I need us to be kids again, snuggled in the same top bunk. I need to spend summer hours crouched in our gravel driveway, feeling my palms brush and push the rocks to the side, creating cities and towns and neighborhoods for our Matchbox cars." She later says, "With one phone call, my little brother became a permanent was in my life. I can't grasp the concept of him as past tense -- a phase like bangs or an ex-boyfriend."

Steve was also extremely close to Therese's children, especially Jessica, whom she had while still in high school. She describes Steve as giving her unconditional love and support when her ex-boyfriend stopped returning her calls.

Besides Therese's point of view, we also hear from her parents, her older brother, her niece, nephew and daughter. These voices will be even more fully heard on her upcoming documentary, "The Final Gift," which will be released in late 2009 or early 2010. In this film, she addresses what her brother's killer's life must be like now and how society makes peace with crime.

I had the pleasure of hearing Therese read her essay, "Sisters," from her book at the June Open Mic I facilitated in Wake Forest at Storytellers Bookstore. She commanded the room with her words, especially in passages such as this one where she's in the courtroom bathroom moments before the killer's sentencing. "The door opens and someone moves into the stall next to mine. I flush instinctively even though I've only been taking up this space. A toilet flushes and takes my moment with it. The woman comes out and joins me at the next sink. I look over toward her in that awkward bathroom moment with a stranger."

I wish this book would have been longer so I could have had more opportunity to enjoy Therese's powerful writing. Even though the subject matter is very dark and full of struggle, you finish the book knowing Therese is able to transcend the somber tone into one of hope and forgiveness. She concludes with, "Fear is the truest opposite of faith. I force myself to choose faith every day."

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Does Your Business Need a Helping Hand?

This week I welcomed my intern, Dana, into my home. She’s a rising senior and is very interested in pursuing a writing or communications career. As many of you know, one of my many passions is helping young people who want to engage in a writing career. So this new arrangement is a total win-win for both of us! I get to help Dana, she gets to help me, plus I’ll be able to offload some of my marketing work to be more productive and creative.

Back in April and perhaps before that, I was feeling the pinch. You know, it’s a place where you can’t seem to get everything done that you want to do, you’re just barely making your deadlines and you are afraid of going to sleep because if you do, you may not get everything done and folks will be disappointed in you….(just writing that run-on sentence was stressful and made me out of breath!) I wondered how I could grow my business when I was spending all of my time doing small, yet important marketing tasks like calendar posts and newsletter updates. Should I let some of my marketing go? But if I did, then my participation numbers would severely drop, and so would my income.
I asked my business coach what I should do and he told me to get an assistant. I told him I couldn’t afford an assistant just yet. He then looked me in the eye and said something like, “Don’t worry, you’ll find a way.” Two days later I was getting coffee at Wake County Public Schools’ 9th annual Xtreme Beginnings Career Fair McKimmon Center. I had volunteered to participate in a round-table discussion about writing. The purpose of the fair is to give students an opportunity for students to gain exposure to an array of educational and career opportunities. One of the school leaders and I struck up a conversation and then she asked me if I would be able to sponsor an intern. You all know what my answer was!
After a couple months of ironing out the details, Dana started working her six hours a week at my house in the afternoons. She even has her own office upstairs, while I work on my laptop at the dining room table. I know she’s a good fit since both of my kids like her. In fact, 18-month-old Erin gave her a running hug after first seeing her enter the front door and Daniel, my rising second grader, bounded upstairs and introduced himself to her before I could. Already I feel my load has lightened and as she continues to learn more about me and my business, I know that I’ll give her more and more responsibilities. Wow, I could get used to this after working by myself for more than three years. In fact, three years ago, I was someone’s assistant!
As your business grows, you must think about delegating and hiring help, or at the very least, outsourcing work that eats up your time and makes you less productive. You have to ask yourself, “What am I doing on a daily basis that’s not generating income for me right now?” Let go some of that work, so you can get back to enjoying your entrepreneurship. Tap back into your creative energies so you can be prosperous and not tired, rundown and headed for a burnout. Get creative in finding your help. Here in Raleigh I know that NC State has a strong intern program, as does Meredith and Peace. Go for it and enjoy your life’s work again!