Greetings. I hope some of you will get to see the upcoming solar eclipse in its totality. It should be quite something! Apparently the last time the U.S. saw a total solar eclipse was in 1979 and it won’t see one again until 2024. On Monday, the longest period that the moon will fully block the sun will be about two minutes and 43 seconds in Carbondale, Illinois. I will be in Vancouver, B.C., by then for the tennis nationals, but I’m sure to check out the sky on Monday at 10:21 a.m. for its maximum there, which apparently will be about 88 percent. Enjoy it, but don’t forget to wear the special eyewear to protect yourself. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with reviews of what I finished last week.
Ahh yes, I’m one of those who finished Season 1 of the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and then went back and read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of it. I was curious to see how closely the series tracked to the original, and I was pleasantly surprised that in many ways the storyline honored the book very well. Both follow a totalitarian theocracy — the Republic of Gilead — that has taken over the U.S. and strictly controls women, forcing them out of jobs and money and into various classes, including the reproductive “handmaids,” who are denied all rights and coerced to produce babies for the elite barren couples.
You know the story. It tracks the life of Offred, who comes to be a handmaid for a top Commander and his wife in Cambridge, Mass. Part of it follows the oppressive life Offred leads living in the house as a handmaid to the Commander and in the community where resisters are hung dead from a Wall near the river, and the other half flashes back to Offred’s life years before, when she was married and had a daughter, and had a job and money — before Gilead. Oh it’s eerie stuff! Poor Offred remembers the good old days with her family, which are contrasted to the horrors of her current life under the totalitarian regime.
Of course, it’s the Commander and his wife, beacons of this society, who break the rules at whim. The Commander starts a secret relationship with Offred, spending evenings with her and taking her out to an underground club, and his wife, who wants Offred’s offspring, asks her to secretly have sex with their car attendant, Nick, believing her husband is infertile. It’s threatening stuff, and you don’t know who among Offred’s contacts can be trusted. Is Nick someone she can trust? Or will her old friend Moira, or Ofglen, a handmaid who is secretly part of the resistance, come to her aid? You won’t find out till the very end.
Atwood effectively writes it so at the onset you’re thrown into Offred’s circumstances, but you don’t exactly know what’s going on. The mystery and horror of the times sort of unfold as you go along. Atwood creates an atmosphere and a world that seem so scarily realistic you can easily believe it is happening. In fact, as she has said in interviews, there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country. She has said she took the idea for Gilead from the early Puritans “who came to America to set up a theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders,” where dissent within is not tolerated.
It’s a book that has been selling like hotcakes again ever since the U.S. election and the TV series came out. The series with Elisabeth Moss as Offred is quite well done and follows the storyline (as I said) pretty closely, but there are some differences. For one, it takes place in today’s world and appears more modern than you get from the book. Also Gilead in the TV series includes various races and orientations of people especially among the major characters, while the book’s society has removed non-whites and gays to faraway lands. Also the sequence of events in the book and the series differ, and secondary characters are much more fleshed out in the TV series. Whereas in the book, what happens is solely from Offred’s point of view, the series involves her husband Luke’s viewpoint as well as others. The characters of Luke, Nick, Ofglen, and Moira all have bigger roles in the series and some of their fates differ from what happens in the book.
Remember Rory from the Gilmore Girls? Well apparently the actress Alexis Bledel will continue as Ofglen in the upcoming Season 2, even though she died in the book. I must say the cast is superb, and it has a lively and surprising soundtrack. Also Elisabeth Moss, who is excellent as Offred, is more headstrong in the series. I think Season 2 will depart from the book since it was almost at the end of the book in the finale of Season 1 and heading that way — off-script.
Still Atwood has been involved with the show, and her very brief surprise cameo (in the pilot of episode 1) was great to see. It’s a bleak and disturbing storyline for sure, but you get hooked into pulling for the resistance every step of the way. It’s a series that champions the resistance and is perhaps why many have taken to the story in light of the Trump administration coming to power. As the secret Latin text carved into Offred’s floor translates: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
If you doubt the oppression in Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” then you probably need to check out the second book I finished just yesterday. I listened for a week to Manal al-Sharif’s memoir “Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening” as an audiobook and it made my blood boil among other things. The book, which came out in June, has made the rounds on the blogosphere and that’s where I heard about it. Of course, you might think you know about the restrictions and oppression happening to women in faraway places, but until you read a woman’s first-hand account there, you really don’t know up-close the magnitude of what’s going on.
Remember the news reports a few years back about a woman being arrested for having the gall to drive a car in Saudi Arabia? Well that was Manal al-Sharif. She became the unexpected leader of a movement to support women’s right to drive. It sounds a bit absurd right? She was thrown in prison for the transgression of “driving while female.”
While she starts her book with this episode of being taken in the middle of the night to prison, she thereafter goes back and tells her life story of growing up in Mecca a devout Muslim from a modest family. Her story of her Islamic fundamentalism and narrow-mindedness (her word) in the first half of the book are not always easy to listen to and I almost couldn’t wait to get to the second half of her memoir where her transformation takes place and she becomes more liberated and a female activist. Of course this all happens very gradually over time, certain things occur in her life that slowly change her perspective, including being forced by her parents to undergo a gruesome female circumcision when she was a teenager; going away to university, which opened her eyes; and watching the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold on TV.
Her ambition for a career and to help her parents financially were also factors in transforming her. Eventually she works her way up into getting a good job with Aramco, the state-owned oil company — yet like at every other stage in her life she ends running up against the Saudi rules of what women there are prohibited from doing. Just listening to all the minutia prohibiting women is staggering.
For instance, you always have to have a male guardian with you when you go outside, and you can’t drive yourself anywhere but need to use your paycheck to hire a taxi or driver to take you where you want to go, and you need to get permission to do things, like register for a class, or get an apartment, or have a male guardian sign for you on everything. Life there for women seems so much more complex, unjust, and time-consuming.
Manal’s account is both eye-opening and also uplifting in how she becomes transformed and persistent in her fight for women’s right to drive. As an activist, she eventually moves out of Saudi Arabia but still she is hopeful for a day when it will change there. I highly recommend her book, which reminded me of other powerful human rights memoirs such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book “Infidel” and Malala Yousafzai’s book “I Am Malala.”
Lastly this past week, my husband and I went to see the Kathryn Bigelow film “Detroit.” Oh my, I almost didn’t make it through. For those who don’t know the movie takes place during the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 when the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets, and three young African American men were murdered at the Algiers Motel.
Midway through there is a section of about 40 minutes or so of a scene of white police brutality that is quite difficult to watch. It felt torturous, especially for how long it goes on. Eventually this scene ends and it turns into a court case against the officers over what happened. It’s far from an easy movie — it’s rather disturbing, but the filmmaking is quite vivid and powerful. You feel like you’re right there and can feel the heat and the tension. At times it seems it’s shot from a hand-held camera that’s bouncing around from the chaos and violence on the streets. You get to know what happened to these real people who were caught up at the Algiers Motel that night. Gosh it would change their lives and the history of the city’s forever. Despite some of its difficult viewing, I’m glad I saw the movie and think it will be nominated for some awards by the end of the year.
What about you — have you read or seen any of these that I reviewed — and if so, what did you think?