While rummaging through a sale bin, this particular book caught my eye.  Not many books talk about household help so I picked it out as something different.  The story revolves around an au pair which, in Philippine society, is equivalent to an all-around nanny that helps in chores.  Maidservants are  an integral part and most often a necessity for middle to upper crust lifestyles.  We have nursemaids for our children, the requisite cook, washerwoman, and house cleaners.  Depending on the size and finances of a household, the quantity of househelp ranges from one, who has to do almost everything, to a battalion with specific work assignments in a huge house.

The book  is very British, however, and has nothing to do with the Philippine way of life.  But knowing that a lot of us can’t live without our helpers, I was intrigued by this book’s premise on how dependent we can get on our maids  or nannies and to what lengths some of us as employers would go to keep them.

Author :  Fay Weldon

Date of Publication :  April 10, 2007

Publisher :  Grove Press

ISBN-10: 0802143016

ISBN-13: 978-0802143013

No. of pages :  288

The Story :

As a young modern couple, Hattie and Martin have outre views about a bevy of things, including deciding that the state of singleness but togetherness is the way to go.  But both are unprepared when baby Kitty is born.  Hattie, the career woman, suddenly finds herself bored with the drudgery of domestic chores and child rearing that she longs for her old job back.  Martin, equally disappointed with tasteless home dinners, reluctantly agrees to Hattie’s decision to hire an au pair.

Agnieszka arrives to seamlessly take over the domestic chores and child-rearing burdens,  leaving Hattie suddenly free to pursue her career and Martin, happy about dinner time and his laundry.  Everything is wonderful and Martin and Hattie intend to keep it that way by making sure that the au pair is happy so she can live with them forever.  Never mind the little stories that don’t seem to connect nor the blatant belly demo, the couple are prepared to go to the extremes just to keep their au pair with them.

The Review :

Hattie’s  grandmother, Frances, relates the couple’s help hiring adventure in her cynical, offhand style with undercurrents of dark , dry humor.

Although the telling is most amusing, it may not appeal to readers who like straightforward plots.  True to the narrator’s granny character, the story goes off tangent several times when she starts reminiscing about her own life.  While this is where most of the author’s wit glimmers,  it does take a bit of concentration to be unfazed by the interrupting deviations in the narration.

In truth, a straightforward telling will perhaps make for a a much thinner book;  the whimsical meanderings of the narrator just plump it up.  It depends on one’s taste now to deem the book humorously satisfying or simply convoluted.  Personally, I found it rather engaging and didn’t mind the flip-flops here and there.

Speaking from a more conservative Asian point of view,  I know I would never warm to the characters, Hattie or Martin,  had they been real. I am rather put off  by their cavalier attitude toward baby Kitty and most everything else. Their grandmother’s nonchalance bothers me as well.  For instance, the revelation  about her husband being an imprisoned dope dealer struck me as more akin to a yawn than the serious predicament that it realistically is.  However, as fictional characters, they do have loads of entertainment value so that the finish, although absurd,  is a jaw dropping surprise twist that left me flabbergasted.

My Mark :   Good!

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While it took me awhile to get through this book because of circumstances, Last of the Amazons was a book I couldn’t put down when I resumed reading it in the dead of night ’til the morning.

This is my second book as I make my way through my two challenges :  Once Upon A Time IV and Spring Reading Thing 2010.

Author :  Steven Pressfield

Publication Date – First Edition :  June 1, 2002 (Hardcover)

Publisher – First Edition :  Doubleday

Publication Date – This Edition :  July 2003 (Trade Paperback)

Publisher – This Edition :  Bantam Dell

ISBN :  0-553-38204-7

The Story :

It is about 1250 B.C., way before Troy or the Battle of Thermopylae, a time where stories have been regarded as myth or legend. It has been told that a nation of Amazons, a warrior race of only women, existed as an independent, self-sufficient society that stood as a testament to the strength, intelligence and hardiness of the supposedly weaker gender.  Steven Pressfield picks up on this tale from accounts of Plutarch and legends and carves his own marvelous what-if of an all-female society with its own culture, mores, lifestyle and government.

The story opens with a Greek family’s nanny, an Amazon slave named Selene, who escapes and unwittingly induces her eldest charge to follow her. A search party of some of the noblest Greeks follow the trail of their comrade’s daughter and Selene. While at sea, the men who had  previously encountered the Amazons with King Theseus tell their tales of these extraordinary warrior women.

When King Theseus of Athens accidentally discovers these legendary women, he sets off an irrevocable chain of events that seal the Amazons’ fate. Antiope, the Amazonian queen falls in love with Theseus, and elopes with him. The new queen Eleuthera tells her nation that the elopement was actually a kidnapping.  In their fury, the entire Amazon nation rounds up its allies and marches on a warpath to Athens to rescue their queen. The story that follows centers on the politics, logistics, and brilliant war tactics these Amazons employ in their war with Athens and continues on to when Antiope returns to them as a foe and heralds the Amazonian civilization’s diminishment into the twilight of their age.

The Review :

I have come out impressed by yet another of novel by Steven Pressfield. Last year, I had been floored by Gates of Fire, his gripping must-read version of the Spartans’ desperate stand against the Persian empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. While Last of the Amazons falls a little short of this novel, it, nevertheless, still is a dazzling read.

There is nothing exciting in the first few pages of the book with the plodding pace and a rather abstract ramble on Amazonian beliefs. But if you just hang in there, you’ll notice that the pace picks up in a while. Soon, you find yourself drawn into a fascinating legendary nation of wholly warrior women equal to men in physical stamina and battle skills. Pressfield tells of a civilization of true feminists, sufficient unto themselves and needing no man except for the serious business of procreation.

Although Pressfield has his doubts of the existence of the Amazons, he writes of them as if he himself had gone back in time and been intimate with their society, lifestyle, and psyche. Indeed, Pressfield’s real forte here is his ability to get readers involved with the story and  through his vivid writing, immersed  in the culture and mindset of the Amazonian civilization.

Without the author’s note at the end about the historical reality of the Amazons being largely based on Plutarch’s accounts and unsupported by archeological evidence, I would have thought this story based on historical fact and not simply on the author’s remarkable imagination. I am sure however that his renderings of the battle scenes are well researched accounts of how lance, shield, horse, etc. had been employed or how different ancient warrior nations conducted themselves in battle.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Ancient battle enthusiasts will be delighted with Pressfield’s meticulous and fascinating detailing. It all comes to life with his vivid accounts of battle strategy, politics, weapons, psychology , emotions, tactics and gore in living detail. For instance, it is quite fascinating to read about how the discus was employed as a weapon.

For the more sociologically inclined readers, Pressfield will not disappoint with his wonderful depiction of Amazonian culture and lifestyle.  In addition,  he handles the dynamics of human decisions and emotions very well.  There even is a marvelous debate between King Theseus and Eleuthera on the advantages or disadvantages of civilized society, the Athenian King arguing for the settlement of a civilization for its advancement while the upcoming Amazonian Queen rebutting a wandering society’s grounding for its loss of freedom and oneness with the natural earth.

Just a small caveat:  Some may be confused with the format of the book. The story is told from about four or five character viewpoints so it would be most helpful to take note of the narrator’s name before every chapter. Also, as I have said, this book needs a little more reading attention with the slew of names and the author’s wordy and somewhat old-fashioned prose (perhaps made to match the “ancient-ness” of the story(?) ).

In A Nutshell:

Steven Pressfield is my go-to for ancient war books.  I have not yet read any author who can match his breathtaking battle scenes laid out in all its  glory, page after riveting page.   If you have, I would appreciate the info for my comparison.  Moreover, this book exemplifies Pressfield’s  exceptional talent in handling  intricate layers in a story.

On the whole, Last of the Amazons is a very well written novel, mesmerizing on all accounts.

My Mark :  Outstanding


Rachel & Leah” follows “Rebekah” in Card’s “Women of Genesis” series,  where the story  segues into Jacob’s  flight from Esau’s wrath over the usurpation of the birthright.  Jacob seeks refuge in his Uncle Laban’s camp where he meets Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah.  And thus this story unfolds to center on these  four important women in the Genesis whose lives would intertwine  each other and around one man, Jacob.

 

 

Author  :  Orson Scott Card

First Publication Date :  2004

First Publisher   :  Shadow Mountain

This Edition’s Publication Date  :  November 29, 2005  (Mass Market Paperback)

This Edition’s Publisher :  Forge Books

 ISBN-10: 0765341298

 ISBN-13: 978-0765341297

No. of pages :   368

 

The Story :

Leah is the myopic eldest daughter of Rebekah’s brother, Laban.  Her acute nearsighted condition limits her participation in the normal, everyday life of  a  pastoral camp.  Leah’s greatest desire is  to know her purpose and worth.  She believes that God’s purpose for her is in the Scriptures,  God’s Words.   She reveals to Jacob her desire to study the Holy Writings.    Jacob readily teaches her to read and write in preparation for understanding the Holy Scriptures.  However her perceptual infirmity forces her to rely increasingly on her handmaid, Bilhah, who undertakes the same tasks  of reading and copying the Scriptures for posterity. In the daily reading and writing exercises, Leah becomes secretly enamored of Jacob.

Rachel, the youngest daughter of Laban, is known as the beauty of the family. It is she whom Jacob falls in love with when he spies her at the well.  He contracts with Laban for the hand of Rachel in return for his service as a bondsman for seven years.

Bilhah, Leah’s handmaid, is orphaned before she comes into Laban’s household.  She is not a slave but a free woman.  Although free in name, she still serves the family to earn her place.  Thus, Bilhah’s confused stature earns her a chip on her shoulder.  She makes a very impatient handmaid to Leah so later she is given over to Rachel instead.  She becomes adept in reading and writing, so Jacob gives her the task (enviable to Leah) of copying the Holy Scriptures.

Zilpah is born in Laban’s camp as a bondservant.  A flirt and an opportunist,  Zilpah has the ambition of bettering her life and status.  She assesses correctly that her future will hold nothing should she stay forever in Laban’s camp.  Thus, she plans to attach herself to those who can take her away from it.  An opportunity arises when she makes herself indispensable to Leah and thus, becomes her handmaid.  Also, she tells Jacob of Laban’s sons’ plot to kill him, raising her trustworthiness in Jacob’s eyes.

All four women are drawn inexorably to Jacob.  As per the Biblical story, Jacob completes his seven-year servitude to Laban and prepares to wed Rachel.  Rachel, in her seven-year “engagement” to Jacob,  had not thought much about marriage and what it truly entails.  Her ignorance sends her in a serious panic and suddenly she cannot bear to marry Jacob nor any man for that matter.  In Hebrew culture where honor and pride is paramount, Laban must think  of a way  to honor his commitment to Jacob and at the same time,  address his daughter’s emotional stress and her well-being.  What follows is exactly what happens in the Bible, but with the author’s own, very creative twist of how these historical  events happen to be so.

 

 

The Review :

In this novel, Card has to flesh out the characters of four women.  And he does this best with Leah who slowly grows in character as the book progresses.  The other three aren’t as developed but it is interesting to notice the dynamics between the four of them, with Jacob somehow drawing them together as the story progresses.

As in “Rebekah“, the author also takes an interest in his male characters and pays the central ones very good attention.  Jacob is a born leader, quiet and gentle but with a natural charisma that endears him to many.  Laban is a loving father who treasures his daughters and would do anything possible to make them happy.

For a male author, it must have been a challenge to have to draw four different female personalities and get into their psyches.  However, Card does quite a good job of it, as mirrored in this excerpt from his Rachel character who reacts with these thoughts to Jacob’s statement, “…compared to women, everything is easy..” :

“…Whatever it was that men imagined about women, they did not change their minds just because a woman disagreed.  Father was that way, and every other man Rachel had talked to in the camp.  It’s as if they thought that women were conducting a vast conspiracy to deceive men and make their lives difficult, so that anything a woman might say to simplify things had to be an attempt at deception.

If only men would listen to us, they’d find out that each one of us is different, and we’re eager to teach you how to understand us.  But I can’t tell you how to understand Leah–I don’t understand her either.  And if you did understand her, poor foolish man, you would think that you then understood all the rest of us, and you’d be hopelessly wrong.  No wonder you despair of understanding women.  The best you could ever hope for would be to understand one woman.  And that’s the goal none of you ever seems to try for.”   — pp. 198-199

Orson Scott Card likes to put his own philosophies within his characters’ dialogues and ruminations;  some make interesting food for thought.

 

 

To  Read Or Not To Read :

For those who think this is a religious book, it is not.  It is simply a fictional adaptation of a Biblical story, the framework of which is used as the plot but the richness of detail and characterization are from the author’s deep well of imagination.  What makes it equally worthy of attention is the fact that the story evolves from the perspective of women mentioned but otherwise not conferred with much importance in the Bible as the men were.  Given the limited power Hebrew women had at the time of Jacob, it is quite engaging to note how these women employ ways to circumvent male dominance to get their way.

At the end of the novel, the author notes that this book is only the first of a series on these four women and Jacob.  Card states:  “…the story has four very strong female characters who needed separate development..”  Thus, this story will perhaps be broken down into a series of books, the number of which has not been specified.  Currently, he is working on “The Wives of Israel“,  the sequel without an established release date yet as of the moment.

It has been five years since “Rachel & Leah” ‘s publication date.  If you’re willing to wait, pick up this book and be treated to a  good imaginative version of half the Biblical story.  While only half the story, the conclusion is still pretty well tied off despite its broad hint of a sequel.

 

In A Nutshell :

Although not as great as Card’s earlier “Women of Genesis” books, namely “Sarah” and “Rebekah“,  “Rachel and Leah” isn’t very far off the good writing mark either (considering it is only half or maybe even one-fourth of the whole  story).  With its solid characters and Card’s sharp insight into the female mind, the novel takes a good second place to his earlier ones in the Genesis series.

 

 

My Mark :   Very, Very Good

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With his “Women of Genesis” series, Orson Scott Card tackles the challenge of bringing ancient Biblical women  to believable life.  The author directs attention to those extraordinary women of their time, giving them prominence where the Old Testament had minimized them and bestowing on them a relevancy to readers of today.

The Author :   Orson Scott Card

Publisher: Forge Books; 1st edition (November 28, 2002)

ISBN-10: 076534128X

ISBN-13: 978-0765341280

No. of pages : 416

The Story :

Motherless at a young age, a Hebrew maiden, Rebekah,  matures early to become a beautiful, practical, intelligent, and headstrong girl with an unwavering faith in God.

As per the Biblical story,  a group of travelers spy Rebekah coming to the well.  The master among them asks for a drink, to which she readily obliges.  It is Eliezer,  a servant from the great house of Abraham who had tasked him to seek a wife for his son, Isaac, heir to the Holy Scriptures, the birthright.  Eliezer had prayed to the Lord to help point out Isaac’s would-be bride by sending him a woman who would do what was considered improper : talking to a stranger at the well; drawing water for his drink; and pouring water for his animals as well.  For Eliezer, God answers his prayers with this beautiful Hebrew maiden who does all what he had determined as signs of His choice.

Immediately, Eliezer negotiates with Bethuel, Rebekah’s father, for her hand in marriage to Isaac.  Rebekah regards the honor of being the chosen bride  for the heir of the birthright and therefore Abraham’s future daughter-in-law, as God’s will for her. Thus, she leaves her father, Bethuel, to take a coveted place in Abraham’s promised destiny of becoming the Father of Nations.

However, her awe of Abraham’s status in the eyes of the Lord quickly falls to disappointment when her headstrong and practical  personality clashes with his.  She also comes to struggle with Isaac’s low self-esteem and his tension-filled relationship with his father.  In a cultural milieu where women are subject to the will their fathers, brothers, or husband, Rebekah learns to adapt and make her way so her opinions and beliefs could be acknowledged by the men in her life.

Several years into the marriage, Rebekah’s prayers for children are answered when she conceives and gives birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.  God speaks to her through a prophecy foretelling that her second-born son, Jacob, would inherit the birthright from Isaac.  In ancient Hebrew society in which inheritances are  strictly handed  to firstborn sons, this was a gravely disturbing revelation.   As her children grow,  Esau exhibits athleticism and rashness and quickly becomes Isaac’s and Abraham’s  favorite.  Thoughtful, introspective and responsible Jacob becomes his mother’s.

All through her life, Rebekah’s character is marked by her intense faith and love of God.  Thus,  her reverance for the Scriptures  encompasses a  strong protective regard for them.   It is her belief that the heir of the Holy Scripture or birthright should be the son who is most likely to ensure its sanctity and preservation through the generations.   Esau , being a more physically oriented man, is wholly uninterested in the scrolls, while Jacob reads and studies them.   With her strong conviction of the worthiness of Jacob and her realization that the prophecy should come to pass, Rebekah contrives to fool Isaac, by now,  old and blind,  into conferring the blessing on Jacob.  She succeeds and so we have a story that segues into a story of Jacob, which is dealt with in a separate book.

The Review :

This is a lovely story of faith and fortitude against cultural odds.  The lot of women in the Old Testament is often a subservient one in a very patriarchal culture.  Women in the Bible, therefore, have mostly served as supporting roles to the Biblical male stars.  With very few exceptions like Eve,  they are often overlooked and their importance denigrated in Biblical history.  (But although Eve has a prominent role in the Genesis, it is a dark one,  that of being credited to have caused man’s downfall and his original sin.)

Orson Scott Card has successfully taken this biblical one-dimensionally drawn female character, Rebekah,  and given her a very plausible personality that explains her actions and her daring decisions, that of leaving her family and traveling miles to marry a man she has never met,  deceiving her husband and betraying her firstborn son of the birthright which by religious and cultural laws was Esau’s to inherit.   Card’s  Rebekah seems like a woman out of our century; but then, it may be because a strong woman’s nature may not be all that inherently different despite time and change.

What is astonishing, though, is Card’s depiction of two very important Genesis characters : Abraham and Isaac.  He delves into what must have been a traumatizing experience  for the sacrificial Isaac and imagines what his psyche might have been after almost being served up to God.   He creatively comes up with a realistic probability that Isaac, who had to face near death by the hand of his own father,  must have been emotionally scarred for life.  So, he  takes this premise and depicts Isaac as suffering from low self-esteem with constant craving for approval from Abraham.  His poor self image carries on to affect how he relates with his sons, Jacob and Esau,  his father,  Abraham and his wife, Rebekah. 

In Card’s story, Abraham, despite being God’s chosen one, is still subject to human frailties.  As an ordinary man, he has high regard for manliness (meaning physical prowess, brashness, fearlessness—traits of a “true man”) and thus cannot help but be disappointed in his mild-mannered, introverted, quiet heir and proud of his other son, Ishmael, who exhibits all these enviable qualities.

With all these human flaws and strengths imbued in his characters, Card relates the dynamics of relationships within this ancient Biblical family, producing a very interesting humanistic story that brings the Bible’s account into contemporary understanding and empathy.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I must commend the author for his vivid imaginations of the story behind the bland skeletal account written in the Bible.   Indeed,  his purpose  must be to influence the reader to see beyond the Biblical story and actually appreciate the trials and tribulations those Biblical people must have gone through in their love and absolute faith in the Lord, meriting their lives’ immortalization for thousands of years in the Holy Scripture.  The reader is persuaded to see Rebekah, Isaac, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, et. al. as “real people” whose actions and choices were driven by the same factors that drive many of us today.

The intense faith in God by the characters whose lives were dedicated to serving His will is palpable in the novel and is quite humbling if one compares  it to today’s degree of faith.

This novel may lead you to a much better appreciation of the Old Testament stories.   As an engaging read, this should be in your list of fruitful things to pass your time with.

My Mark :  Outstanding

I had a wonderful month-long vacation in Dubai for the Holidays.  I was impressed with Dubai’s stunningly modern cityscape and infrastructure and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that has made Dubai a true melting pot of  the Middle East.

Because of this, I saw a country of contradictions.  Where else can one see skimpily clad women alongside heavily veiled ones?

This juxtaposition had me intrigued.  I have often wondered then how veiled women or those who have to wear abaayas feel or think about those who never wear them.

So, I just had to buy this book which narrates the true-to-life story of a Saudi princess—a fascinating perspective as it comes from a an Arab woman of note.

Author              :  Jean Sasson

First Release   :  September 1992

Publisher (this edition)        :  Bantam Books  (1993)

No. of pages     :  303

This is the true story of Princess Sultana (fictitious name) of the royal house of  Al Sa’ud, the current ruling clan of  Saudi Arabia.  She tells of her privileged life of mind-boggling riches and of her real life as a woman pinioned by cultural fetters of gender prejudice.

Princess Sultana is a feminist, a woman who feels deeply about the indignity and the precarious  situation of women in Saudi Arabia whose laws and fanatic customs demean, denigrate, and threaten their very lives.  In the milieu of extreme patriarchy where severe punishment is meted for breaking social and religious laws, she is a rare voice, a courageous one, as she has risked her life to tell her story, anonymously, through the author, Jean Sasson.

She recounts her life—how it is like to grow up as a Saudi princess, what incidents she had witnessed and heard of— grave injustices,  appalling torture and punishment done to women, some of whose only sins were falling in love with a non-Muslim or being unfortunate enough to have been raped.

If I was hoping to find some answer to my question on how veiled women feel about thier abaayas,  I did get her opinion.  Of course, this is only one opinion. There should be several, supporting or opposing ones.  I’d love to hear about opposing ones.

Princess Sultana narrates that at the first moments of the first veiling were exciting.  Veiling signifies a child’s transition to womanhood and is practiced as soon as the child reaches menarche.

“For a moment, I felt myself a thing of beauty, a work so lovely that I must be covered to protect men from their uncontrollable desires.”– p.111

But in the next instant, she envies the freedom of those only partially veiled.  (She has to wear a full veil covering her entire face.  I’ve seen women veiled this way in Dubai and frankly, the sight of a heavily veiled woman, who looks like a walking death shroud, did creep me out a bit).

“The novelty of wearing the veil and abaaya was fleeting, though.  When we walked out…I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric.  The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the gauzy cloth.  I had purchased the sheerest veil available, and yet I was seeing life through a thick screen.  How could one woman see through veils made of thicker fabric?  … my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that, from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its colour…”

“I stumbled over  several children of a bedouin woman, and looked in envy at the freedom of the veil.  Bedouin women wear veils that fell across their noses, leaving their eyes free to examine their surroundings.  Oh how I wished to be a bedouin!  I would cover my face gladly if I could only leave my eyes free to see the inifinite changes of life around me.” — p. 111

Perhaps then, veiled women do feel a certain envy toward those who never have to wear them.  The object of envy would be freedom—freedom to express one’s individuality through their own choices of make-up and fashion; freedom from restrictive clothing;  freedom to revel and have confidence in one’s own body.  These are little freedoms which most women take for granted.   I have sensed sometimes these women’s longing to have the social confidence Western and most Asian women have, an inherited assurance owing to totally different cultural views.

However, I am straying from the subject —which is a review of this book.

Princess is indeed all of these — shocking, fascinating, heart-breaking, outrageous, thought-provoking, unbelievable.  It is mind-boggling to think how ideas and acts, presumed to be medieval, be alive and and accepted in this day and age — the age of information.  The book is simply written, far from being a literary work of note in terms of writing style; but Sasson does convey the story coherently and sequentially well.

For Filipinos, it would be  of interest to know that Princess Sultana makes a lot of references to our “kabayans”, overseas workers who form a significant part of the labor force in Saudi Arabia.

This book is so interesting that it may spur one to read Jean Sasson’s other novels, all of which deal with women in the Arab world.

My Mark :  Outstanding

Author : Margaret Atwood
Copyright : 1985
Release Date : March 16, 1998
Publisher : Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition
ISBN-10: 038549081X
ISBN-13: 978-0385490818
Pages: 320

My first thought after Chapter One : surreal. I thought, oh no, not one of those esoteric ones again.

This isn’t the normal type of book I’d pick up to read; but now, I understand its surprising appeal. It’s the kind that can linger in you way after you’ve finished the book and gone on to others—disturbing, thought-provoking, and very unique.

If you haven’t read a synopsis anywhere or bothered to look at the teaser at the back cover, you’d be a little lost in the beginning. The story starts out vaguely with the distracted ramblings of the narrator, Offred, as she tells of her circumstances in the present. In between, she surprises you with sudden glimpses of her past; and this is how the story falls into place — in bit by bit revelations. Persevere reading through enough flashbacks until you get the picture; and, see how Atwood gets you hooked by the middle of the book.

So what’s this all about ?

Sometime in this century , an extreme and radical theocracy violently supplants U.S. democracy and changes the structure of every societal aspect as we know it — the family unit, religion, judicial system, etc. This is the Gileadean Republic, the totalitarian response to everything plaguing the Caucasian race, most notable ones being the decline in fertility and birth rates of normal babies. This severely patriarchal society forces a new way of life, based on the Old Testament Bible, twisted to serve a ruling male elite — the Commanders, and to justify the total subjugation of women as merely breeders, domestic slaves, and pliant wives, to name a few roles.

Offred is a handmaid, a breeding vessel whose primary social function is to lie on her back, hope to be impregnated, and bear a normal healthy baby for the good of society. Failing this mission in her childbearing years, she becomes an intolerable burden to all. The story is Offred’s account of her thoughts and emotions as a handmaid in this unforgiving Giledean order.

I am a sucker for beautiful writing; so despite the surrealism, I was inevitably drawn to the author’s poetic style. I wish I, too, could string the right words together so gracefully that the resulting prose is effortlessly elegant, even when I’m being snide.

Atwood also has a distinct way of looking at things. I can’t help but give you a taste of it:

(In reference to a Bible): “ …He lets the book fall closed . It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself, at a distance : a puff of air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how they would feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink and powdery, from the time before, you’d get it in booklets for taking the shine off your nose…” — p. 85

“The interviews with people still alive then were in colour. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said;…

He was not a monster, she said…She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation…” — pp.136 -137

“…every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.” — p. 24

If asked, would I read another Atwood novel, my answer would be a resounding “Yes”. But only after taking a deep breath while preparing myself before a dive into eccentricity. Now, I’m just making a guess here. Maybe her other novels aren’t strange; but, what I do hope is that she delivers writing of this same calibre.  It is exactly for this that A Handmaid’s Tale earns a permanent place in my shelf.

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Deborah Rodriguez

Release Date : Dec. 17, 2007

This novel is a true-to-life adventure of a certified hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez who “in 2002,  helped form the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty school and training salon in Afghanistan” (About the Author page __The Kabul Beauty School).  In a country that has mixed feelings on the moralities of beauty salons (unbelievable but true), Deborah’s achievement is all about overcoming cultural barriers and giving hope.

With a germ of an idea and a “can-do” attitude, she raises sponsorships from U.S. cosmetic companies, sometimes personally funding her classes, and practically doing everything she could think of to get the school up and running___even marrying an Afghan so she could stay protected in a country so hostile to women.

Deborah is one person I would like to meet.  Through her book, she strikes me as a bohemian character, energetic, gutsy, quirky, self confident, uninhibited and above all, a woman with a big heart.  I think I will like her if only for the fact that like me, she enjoys a good book with a margarita or two. 

The Kabul Beauty School is an easy, enjoyable read with a down-to-earth writing style and lots of humor to balance genuine, heart-breaking accounts of the women the author has gotten to know.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a whiff of condescension; just sadness at the fact that women in Afghanistan are going through unbelievable oppression.  But the author’s natural optimism still sees hope through the indomitable spirit of Afghan women.  Amidst the pain of cultural subjugation , these women could still find something to laugh about and to hope for , enough to fight for their own personal betterment. In the author’s unique way, she saw their salvation in perms, hair color, and make-up!

I started reading this book in a cafe where I spent two hours sipping my glasses of soda and giggling my way through the pages.  One of the many hilarious paragraphs that gave me the giggles:

“Then I pointed my scissors at Daud.  He had a haircut that was pretty typical of the Afghan men I had seen so far–a sort of pompadour trimmed short in the back with a wad of hair puffed up on top.  It was like the hairdo Elvis had sported in his most hideous days, when he was wearing those tight leather pants and awful capes made by the Ice Capades people.  I hated it. …..”

“…We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband.  Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows.  There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face or privates…We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room–the only one in Afghanistan, I might add…Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their pubic hair removed by others, so they do it at home–they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum.  Either way, the process is brutally painful.  Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian–every pubic hair plucked, front and back–when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.”

You will find this book, funny, sad, outrageous, and candid all at the same time.  It may pique your curiosity to learn more about Afghan culture after this book.  It most certainly did for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute reading it.

I pray Deborah will be able to return to Kabul in the years to come, without fear of reprisals for her book or for simply empowering some women to learn a trade.   Her commitment to open opportunities to Afghan women for making a decent living should be an inspiration to all those who wish to make a difference in this world.

My Mark : Excellent