Minute Marginalia

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stacks challenge #3: Plain & Fancy

Brief thoughts
Inspired by others tackling non-fiction, I picked Susan Burrows Swan's Plain & Fancy: American Women and Their Needlework, 1650-1850. Packed with illustrations, the book combines slight social history with a detailed study of the types of needlework practiced in America over two centuries. Swan was a curator at Winterthur and, judging by that background and the few sites that have reviewed her titles, her intended audience has far more experience with needlework than I do; my interest was in the social and cultural history.

One of the book's strengths is its heavy use of primary sources -- diaries, advertisements, letters, and, of course, the needlework itself -- allowing glimpses of people and institutions. Swan touches on the progression of needlework in various female academies, changing trends in fashions, and the gradual deterioration in skill over the centuries, with an admitted emphasis on decorative, rather than practical, sewing. There are rare flashes of humor, as when she describes "a sprightly picture, probably intended as a mourning picture, by Lucy Nye . . . [who] apparently had no one to mourn, so instead of a name on the tomb, she substituted a cheerful verse." The text is brief and accessible enough to make it fairly easy reading, though the book's design is occasionally an impediment. (Not all illustrations are on -- or near -- the pages where they're discussed; new terms are followed by the phrase "see Glossary", sometimes accompanying a discussion that repeats information from that source, other times with no supplementary information whatsoever.) Nonetheless, it's a useful, if not essential, reference for studying women's and children's social history (and seems highly regarded by those collecting and researching needlework).

And a related link...
Looking for online commentaries on Plain & Fancy turned up not a review but a dazzling example of social history based on a needlework artifact, Cross-Stitched History: Artistry and Ambition in Christina Arcularius’s Tree of Knowledge Sampler, written by Margaret K. Hofer, curator of decorative arts at the New York Historical Society. It's actually part of the Commonplace: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life site, which, as the title suggests, offers an assortment of articles about American history.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Stacks challenge #2: Anansi Boys

Continuing with another sf/fantasy title, Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys...

Thoughts while reading (at the 2/3 point):
So far this hasn't inspired the type of note-taking or examination as the Atwood, though it's been equally absorbing (and, at times, laugh-aloud funny). Mostly, I'm enjoying the way Gaiman uses legends and folklore as the basis for his tale. Gaiman also excels at intricate plots: more than one figure who initially seemed to be nothing more than a background element -- something casually introduced only to illuminate the protagonist or add color to a situation -- has instead reappeared in the most surprising situations, advancing the story.

Until Gaiman made it explicit, I'd missed the idea that Spider and Fat Charles were the same person. Now, looking back, I see similar doublings throughout the book:

  • the dual nature of Anansi (which also reminded me of Gail Haley's illustrations for her account of Anansi in A Story, A Story)
  • the dual nature of the other gods Fat Charlie visits -- especially through Gaiman's description of the birdwoman (which also calls up images of the Native American trickster figure Raven):
Fat Charlie saw one thing with his eyes, and he saw something else with his mind, and in the gulf between the two things, madness waited. . . .
. . . while he knew that he was seeing a bird, mad-eyed, ragged-feathered, bigger than any eagle . . . its feathers the color of slate overlaid with an oilslick sheen, making a dark rainbow of purples and greens, he really only knew that for an instant, somewhere in the very back of his mind. What he saw with his eyes was a woman with raven-black hair, standing where his idea of a bird had been.
  • the hidden room in Grahame Coats's office -- thus making two rooms in one (and reminiscent of Gaiman's children's books, most notably Coraline with its doubled worlds)
  • Coats himself, who (at this point, anyway) has two identities he's been maintaining for some time -- one man, two names (And is his surname also an indication that one identity is a sheddable layer?)
  • the cruise boat, which also has two names -- Squeak Attack, formerly Sunny Archipelago (and I still don't get that joke...)
Belatedly wondering whether it's also noteworthy that one of the first abilities attributed to Fat Charlie's father is his ability to rename people, so they essentially have two identities, their original name and that bestowed by him, and/or whether it's coincidence or significant that Charlie has two romantic interests, Rosie and Daisy, both of whom possess floral names.

Quick comments after finishing the book:

More doublings in the last section, especially for Grahame Coats. Is the shift in the location also a reminder that the Anansi tales travelled from Africa to other locations?

Searching for information about the book on Neil Gaiman's blog also brought up a contemporary twist in writing fiction, one that adds a wrinkle for people who like to analyze names. It's the auctioning off of naming rights for various characters. In this case, the cruise boat was christened by the winner of an eBay auction to support one of Gaiman's favorite organizations, CBDLF (which may explain why the name isn't making sense within the context of the book). (Just found Gaiman's post announcing the winner, which is apparently connected with product promotion -- and another post from him, saying this has been occurring since at least 2000. A slashdot entry provides a bit more context for the name and comments on the concept.)

Finally, since I'm linking to authors' blogs, Julius Lester, who's done some marvelous retellings of American trickster tales in his Uncle Remus series, has just started a blog.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Handmaid's Tale, pt. 2

Like the movie monster that becomes considerably less frightening once it shows onscreen, the world revealed in the book's second half left its scope more limited than I'd expected. The fault was probably mine: read fifteen years ago, the concept would have seemed more innovative.

Gaps and connecting images are the two areas of books I usually enjoy examining. The color red threads through the novel, from the first tulips to the handmaids' outfits (as well as their training ground, the Red Center) to the color of the lipstick that ultimately reveals Offred and the Commander's illegal activities. (The tell-tale lipstick stain on the hood of the cloak also echoes the blood-stained hood of the corpse in the beginning, "the one red smile . . . the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy's garden.") Then there's the narrator's name, Offred -- or Off-red, a succinct statement of her desire to be free from that role and outfit. (Initially, I wondered if that was a too much of a semantic stretch, then found several essays on the book in the Summer 2006 issue of University of Toronto Quarterly, via Project Muse. Not only did others also consider the Of-fred/Off-red interpretation, but Rosemary Sullivan notes that "Robed in red, [Offred] would be an offering" -- or offered -- to the Commander. Another article commented on the various types of wordplay in the novel, or, as Eric Domville phrases it, "there flourishes a paradoxical jouissance in the telling, in the endless playing with words and their meanings and associations." He also mentions something I'd forgotten -- that Offred's previous career was as a librarian.)

Phonetically, "red" is indistinguishable from "read", and reading and reconstructions are another intriguing aspect of the novel. Having seen "Historical Note" in the table of contents, I'd spent most of the book anticipating an author's note providing historical context and commentary to round off the reading, and was caught off guard by what followed (although, in one sense, it does round off and provide historical commentary on the reading . . . ). Is the intent to contrast scholarship/history vs the lived experience? Is it significant that a male scholar presents on a woman's experience -- the difference between Perry Miller (who, I've since learned, was also one of Atwood's professors) trying to recapture the Puritans and Mary Webster (the other person named in the dedication), Atwood's ancestor, a 17th-century woman who survived hanging after being accused of witchcraft?

Indeed, the transmission of history and issues of knowing/not knowing outcomes (incomplete or obscured history?) are also ideas that recur throughout the book: in the Red Centers, films from the past are used to show the wrongs of the past (but take on a different meaning for Offred, who sees her own mother in the footage -- like the Miller/Webster dedication, another example of impersonal history juxtaposed against lived experience). The past is also distorted through the Commanders' versions of history and partially erased through the book burnings and attempts to keep women from literacy (and through the periodic purges of records); the recent past is transmitted in fragments via the Handmaids' whispers or a moment's glance at a photo. Even Offred's history comes piecemeal throughout the book. Is the tale's supposed preservation in disguise on music tapes important -- a reminder of the palimpsestic nature of much of women's writings?

More questions than answers there...

Doubling back to reconsider a few of the elements I'd noticed or questioned from the first half, I find I still don't know if Nick's name was indicative of his role (as tempter or as rescuer, in the nick of time), nor have I reached any conclusions about why every other chapter is titled "Night." A reminder of the darkness of that society? Of the limited times Offred and others like her are unobserved and have some personal freedom (but do they?)? Of the protagonist's changing situation (since most of the changes occur at night -- from solitude to secretive meetings with the Commander to trysts with Nick to departure)? Is "light", the last word of Offred's narrative, an indication of hope?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Handmaid's Tale, pt. 1

There are right times and wrong times for certain books. I'd planned to start the Stacks challenge with Possession, but it seemed to call for a leisurely reading, antithetical to my current situation -- and then spotted Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, at the back of another shelf. Now I'm halfway through the book and marvelling that it sat so long unread...

Random associations and ramblings on the reading so far:
A conversation with Jill of Individual Take about approaches to reading (based on her gleanings from Well-Educated Mind) prompted me to look for a table of contents with chapter titles. The book's dedication was on the facing page, with one recognizable name -- Perry Miller, whose landmark scholarship redefined our understanding of the Puritans. So far, the Puritan mindset is clearly in evidence in the novel (but more repressive than I remember it in Miller). As for chapter titles, I still haven't figured out why every other chapter is titled "Night". (Is there a time progression I'm missing?)

The middle chapter is called "Birth Day" and is the section I'm reading now. It's filled with references to births:
  • the birth of Ofwarren's daughter (and, as a contrast, Warren's wife's pseudo-birth?)
  • Offred's mother's memories of being pregnant (and, as a contrast, the films of pro-choice rallies?)
  • the opening scene with Offred eating an egg (and describing its shell as "a barren landscape")
  • is Moira's escape another type of birth?
  • or Offred's desire to escape and provide a reconstruction of her history (thus giving birth to a narrative?)
  • and Offred's new relationship with the Commander, via the secret meeting and game of scrabble (during which she spells "zygote", another connection)
Flipping to the front of the book, the first two epigraphs -- the Rachel and Bilbah passage from Genesis and excerpt from Modest Proposal -- deal with too few and too many births (an image repeated in the "Shopping" chapter when the two handmaidens, Offred and Ofglen, look at the doctors executed for having tried to prevent births).

That, in turn, reminded me of one of the earliest Biblical allusions in the book, where Aunt Lydia tells the women "Some of you will fall on dry ground or thorns. Some of you are shallow-rooted": What was originally a metaphor for faith is now one for fecundity. Aside from the obvious connection with some religions' repression of women and attempt to control their reproductive rights, are there other meanings here? I went to Thomas Cahill's Gift of the Jews, hoping to find a passage about the difference between Abraham's new religion with its one (male) god and the pairing of male and female deities that many earlier religions favored. Instead, the book opened to the section where Sarah gives Abraham her handmaiden, Hagar -- the generation preceding Rachel and Bilbah. And then came the realization that the Virgin Mary is sometimes referred to as God's handmaiden. How much is Atwood implicating an entire religious perspective?

Related to that -- and to the potential importance/weight of names: Is it significant that Moira, currently a symbol of hope, takes her name from a Greek goddess (of fate)? So many of the other names (like the Marthas) are clearly Biblical; Offred even makes a point of noting that her Luke wasn't a physician. (And is Nick, her tempter, supposed to bring up the association with Satan's nickname?)

Unbelievably, it took until midway through writing these notes before I realized that Commander wasn't actually a military title (and periodically I wonder if it's coincidence that Serena Joy, who enjoyed freedom and fame speaking out to curtail other women's rights, has a name that sounds vaguely like Schlafly). (And they're even both blonde...) Atwood's handling of the handmaids' names is deft. The first one, Ofglen, I read as merely foreign, mentally pronouncing it "Aufg-len" -- until Ofwayne and Ofwarren were both introduced four paragraphs later and the impact stopped me in mid-chapter.

Back to the book...

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Will This Really Reduce the TBR Mountains?

Heard about the From the Stacks challenge and decided to try it. Two titles that I'm ashamed not to have read sooner and have had on the shelf for years are A.S. Byatt's Possession and Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits. (But I see on "The Incredible Growing List" on overdue books that I'm not the only one still waiting to read Byatt.) For now, those two will constitute the list; I'll decide on the remaining titles later.