Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Testaments - by Margaret Atwood



Among Harry Potter fans there is a stretch of time known as the three-year-summer -the period between July 2000 and June 2003. It references the spacing between the fourth and fifth books in the series. It was a difficult time for us to be sure, but it was nothing compared to the 35-year wait Atwood fans endured for this sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.

This was well worth the wait. While not a continuation of Offred's story we do discover what happened to her and the baby she was carrying. Instead this is a novel in three voices.

The first is Aunt Lydia by way of the Ardua Hall Holograph, a clandestine memoir, secretly written, a la Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984. The difference here is that Aunt Lydia is less likely to be discovered by the cameras because, as she tells us "I know where they are, having placed them myself". The other two voices are those of Agnes Jemima a young woman who grew up in Gilead; and Daisy, who grew up in Canada where she learned about Gilead through her parents and her lessons at school. Both of these young women have several different aliases.

Aunt Lydia lives in Ardua Hall, along with all the other aunts in the city. Each evening she heads to her "private sanctum" in the Hildegard library "one of the few libraries remaining after the enthusiastic book-burnings that have been going on..." The Ardua Hall library has different rooms with different levels of access. Aunt Lydia has access to all - the General section where new supplicants learn to read; the Reading room "where the Bibles brood in the darkness of their locked boxes, glowing with arcane energy"; and the Bloodlines Genealogical Archives with their classified files. Aunt Lydia knows that knowledge is power, something that clearly the Commanders of Gilead are also quite aware, otherwise they would have no reason to deny the ability to read to women. Even some of the Aunts believe that reading can be too dangerous. The residents of Ardua Hall know all too well the story of poor Aunt Lily who neither wanted to marry nor stay in Ardua Hall instead "she wanted to live on her own and work on a farm. Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Vidala said this was what came of reading too early...before her mind was strengthened enough to reject [the wrong ideas] and there were a lot of questionable books that should be destroyed".

Daisy and Aunt Lydia both describe visiting their school libraries as a children, and both tell of a specific book they remember from their respective school libraries. Contrary to the experiences of Aunt Lydia and Daisy, going to a library is privilege that Agnes Jemima never had. Her experiences in a library (a word she never even heard as a child) would come later in her life. When she does enter a library for the first time she is overwhelmed
It's hard to describe the feeling this gave me. The first time I passed through its doors, I felt as if a golden key had been given to me - a key that would unlock one secret door after another, revealing to me the riches that lay within. 
Eventually, Agnes does some work in the Hildegard library, as does her friend Becka (aka Aunt Immortell). Agnes' job is to make "fair copies of Aunt Lydia's speeches". It is through working on this task that she discovers some disturbing information about her family. Someone who knows that knowledge is power begins slipping files with classified information in between the files of speeches to be copied.

We don't know much about what Becka's job in the library is, except that she sometimes has "night duty" there. Aunt Lydia does mention that there is a "night librarian" on duty whom she greets on the way to her sanctum.

Aunt Lydia uses the library as a cover on behalf of two residents of Ardua Hall when it is discovered that they are not at lunch. Aunt Lydia knows their whereabouts but instead tells the others "I believe they are fasting...I glimpsed them in the Hildegard Library yesterday, studying their Bibles".

Reading and writing are forbidden for women and girls in Gilead, with the exception of the Aunts. Books were apparently their consolation prize for not being able to have husband or babies. As Agnes Jemima tells us "the Aunts were not married; they were not allowed to be. That was why they could have writing and books". I've thought about this passage a lot as a person who loves reading and writing and who is also a woman who has had a husband for 33 years. For me the choice of family or literacy seems a particularly grim game of  "Would you rather..." If I had never fallen in love with my husband in the first place the answer would be clear, but given the choice of leaving my husband or keeping my privilege of literacy what would I do?

Of course the Aunts don't really make this choice. They don't leave their husbands, they never had them to begin with.  They have their books and writing, and they have each other for company. Although Aunt Lydia doesn't have close friends among the other Aunts, she understands that she needs their companionship. As she discovered when placed in solitary confinement prior to facing her own Hobson's Choice of Aunt-hood or death "One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person".

Across from Ardua Hall, the Eyes also have headquarters in what used to be a library. Aunt Lydia tells us that "It now shelters no books but their (the Eyes) own, the original contents having been burned or, if valuable, added to the private collections of various sticky-fingered Commanders."

As with The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments ends with an epilogue in the form of an academic conference. Here we read the transcripts of The Thirteenth Symposium of Gileadean Studies, International Historical Association Convention, Passamaquoddy, Maine, June 29-30, 2197. The keynote speaker is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto who immediately, condescendingly, points out that the Chair of the Symposium, Professor Maryanne Crescent Moon, would never have had that position in Gilead, and  that in fact "women are usurping leadership positions to...a terrifying extent".

As in The Handmaid's Tale Pieixoto is the only male narrator, and similar to his comments in that novel, he begins by questioning the authenticity of the recently discovered holograph, and the two witness testimonies (discovered in the library of the Innu University in Sheshatshiu, Labrador), but ultimately, charitably suggests "why not take them at their word?" The testimonies were discovered by a graduate student, a woman - Mia Smith, who shared them with her professor, who of course first questioned their authenticity. Once a team of graduate students followed the route described in the transcripts, and validated certain details Peixioto ready to take on the work of doing the seminal research on them - talk about a usurper.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Behold the Dreamers - by Imbolo Mbue


Jende Jonga lives in Harlem with his wife Neni, and son Liomi. Immigrants from Cameroon, Jende lands a job as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman Brothers while Neni studies to become a pharmacist. They don't have a lot of money, and they know that they can get good, free assistance at the library. This is evident in the first paragraph of the first page of the book.
He'd never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn't even owned a résumé until the previous week when he'd gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him...

Neni also makes good use of her college library to do her homework.



Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Now and Then - the movie


How can it be that even the "now" part of this movie is nostalgia? I first saw this movie, in which a bunch of 30-something women reminisce about the summer of 1970, on VHS tape over two decades ago. I had forgotten that library research was an important part of the plot.

Four old friends get together as one of their crew is set to give birth to her first child. They remember a summer when, as preteens, they worked to earn enough money to buy a tree-house from Sears. Exactly what kind of work they were doing is unclear. They only thing we know for sure is that they got $10 for painting a garage door. Everything else is a mystery. Perhaps they were babysitting, but in 1970 they were getting $1 per hour - at best.

Anyway, in addition to earning money for the tree-house the friends also spend some time trying to discover how Johnny Simms (aka "Dear Johnny") died. Intrigued by a headstone located in the local cemetery of a boy who perished in 1945 at the age of twelve, they set out to find how a child of their age could have passed at such a young age. Logically, they go to the public library to see if they can find newspaper articles, but they are informed that the newspapers from the period they need were destroyed in a fire. However, they are informed, the Greenfield library did have all the copies. "We can't ride our bikes all the way to Greenfield, can we?" asks one of the girls? Well, perhaps back in 1970 when parents just assumed their kids were all right unless they heard otherwise four young girls could ride 180 miles to go to the library but I can't imagine that the library would still be open when they arrived, and they'd never be able to return on the same day. We'll chalk this one up to "art doesn't have to imitate life".
Google maps screenshot indicating that it is a 14-hour bike ride from Shelby to Greenfield

When they do arrive at their destination they are disappointed to discover that someone has torn some of the pages out of the bound newspapers, just the pages they need to find out the truth of what happened to Dear Johnny. A true hazard of the pre-digital age. I must say I was impressed that they managed to use a photocopier without going to a librarian and explaining that they'd never used one before and therefore needed help. Apparently they did what I did the first time I used a library photocopier and simply read the directions. I really wish more people would do that.

Lagniappe:
As a little meta-bonus surprise this film had a clip from Love Story which itself is a library movie!