Review of The Handmaid’s Tale


Resident Michelle Chenoweth will review The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood on Tuesday, November 17, 2019 at 7 PM in the Auditorium.

Margaret Atwood, a Canadian writer, penned her dystopian, speculative novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1985-86. In planning her novel, Atwood asked herself
• If I were going to take over the United States, how would I do it? Would I say, “I’m a socialist, and we are all going to be equal”? No, because it would not work.
• Would I say, “I’m a liberal, and we will build a society of multiple toleration”? She probably would not say that if she wanted mass support.
• A strict religious person would much more likely say, “I have the word from God, and this is the way we should run things.”
That probably would have more of a chance of working, and, in fact, there are several movements in the U.S. today saying just that and getting lots of dollars and developing influence.

Atwood limited the ideas and practices in The … Tale to those that have occurred somewhere in the world since the beginning of recorded time.

Set in the near future, The Handmaid’s Tale describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans.

At Harvard, Atwood extensively studied the early Puritans who came to America, not for religious freedom but to set up a society that would be a totalitarian theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders and a society that would not tolerate dissent within itself.

The Gilead regime literally interprets the Book of Genesis, with bizarre consequences for its women and men through constant surveillance, strict regulation, and extreme punishment.

Desperate to deal with a shrinking birth rate caused by pollution, chemical poisoning, and decreasing fertility, the government of Gilead creates the Handmaids, women with viable ovaries who are placed in the households of ranking government officials whose wives cannot bear children. The handmaids are fertile women who are forced to have intercourse with the leaders to produce babies for these elite, barren couples.

This tale relates the day-to-day life of one handmaid—Offred (of Fred). The handmaids lose their identities in the service of Gilead and are named after their masters. If after two years the handmaid does not conceive, she is transferred to another master and takes his name Ofwarren (of Warren).

The Handmaid’s Tale is a scathing examination of gender relations, ecological damage, the dangers of mixing religion and government, and the importance of free speech for retaining a sense of self.

Janet Neer and Jane Backstrom, Book Review Co-Chairs

Resident Book Review for October, 2019

Oct. 15 – Leadership: In Turbulent Times
[New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018] by Doris Kearns Goodwin, reviewed by Eleanor Lewis.


Author website
Excerpts [Google Books]
Leadership in Turbulent Times [Washington Independent Review of Books]
In times of crisis, four presidents..  [Washington Post]
Review [Wall St. Journal]
Trump Doesn’t Measure Up….. [The Guadian]
The True Grit of Four American Presidents [New York Times]
Review [History News Network]
Review [Leadership Now Blog]
‘Leadership…’offers lessons from presidential greats [Christian Science Monitor]
Think Trump Is Abnormal? [Bloomberg]
Interview at Wharton School/UPENN
…Goodwin says empathy is “essential” for leadership [CBS News]
Radio Review (audio file) [WAMC]
Leadership in Turbulent Times (video) [C-SPAN]
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Leadership in Turbulent Times {video} [National Constitution Center]
Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Leadership in Turbulent Times” (video & transcript) [PBS]
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Leadership In Turbulent Times … (video) [Chicago Humanities Festival]

These are just some among many resources available on the internet.

Review of “Leadership: In Turbulent Times”

Resident Eleanor Lewis will review Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at 7 PM in the Auditorium.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times gives a revealing picture of its four subjects, all of them involved in politics long before they became President of the United States.  The author, in her aim to show the kindred traits that each one exhibited in exercising the directorship of the nation, goes at it in a threefold way: she looks first at the early life of the man (they were, of course, all males) and his development of character: then at any adversity which he had to overcome to achieve his ambitions; finally, how he exercised his talents while in office.

All four confronted “great necessities”, as she puts it: “Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency at the gravest moment of dissolution in American history.  Franklin Roosevelt encountered a decisive crisis in our country’s economic survival and the viability of democracy itself.  Though neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson faced a national crisis on the scale of secession or devastating economic depression, they both assumed office as a result of an assassination, a violent rupture of the democratic mode of succession at a time when seismic tremors had begun to rattle the social order.” The author demonstrates how each was the right person to lead at the moment of history that gave him the reins of government.

Goodwin includes details that give us surprising insights into her subjects. For example, while we are  familiar with the close relationship of FDR with his mother, experiences in his early years with his father were life shaping for him, as she demonstrates in describing Franklin’s recuperation from polio.

Likewise, we learn about the influence of LBJ’s parents on their son’s political development.  From his mother, a college educated cultured woman with literary aspirations, he learned the value of a good education and an orderly life. From his father, who liked nothing better than swapping stories with his cronies, he received his life-long ability to relate to everyone he met and to manipulate people for his own ambitions. But the tension between his parents gave Lyndon a sense of insecurity and a need to control as well as an enormous desire to please, characteristics which would later show themselves in behavior with subordinates, colleagues and the press.

Goodwin gives a meticulous and fair accounting of each of her subjects, so much so that one might someday take on the task of reading her biography of each of them! But for now, this volume is recommended as noteworthy for its ease in reading and its appropriateness in these, our own times of turbulence.

Janet Neer and Jane Backstrom, Book Review Co-chairs

Resident Book Review for September, 2019

Sept. 17 – Fall of Frost [New York: Viking, 2008] by Brian Hill, reviewed by Bill Tilles.


Author’s website
Excerpts [Google Books]
Review by Mark Kemp [Kenyon Review]
Review by Jonathan Miles [NY Times]
Fall of Frost Reader’s Guide
When Robert Frost Met Khruschev [Christian Science Monitor]
The Storm Over Robert Frost [NY Review of Books]
Brian Hall- Two Openings: A Writer at Work [Colgate Writers’ Conference] (YouTube)
Review by Jonathan Shipley [Bookslut]
Review by Anna Mundow [Barnes & Noble Review]
Snipets from a Poet’s Life [Smoky Mountain News]
A Cold Case [Bookforum]
Take Five..With Brian Hall [Philadelphia Free Library blog]
When Bad things Happen to Good Poets [Star Tribune]

Review of “Fall of Frost”

Resident Bill Tilles will review Fall of Frost by Brian Hall on Tuesday, September 17, 2019 at 7 PM in the Auditorium.

Fall of Frost , a novel by Brian Hall, is an up close and personal story of the life of the great poet, Robert Frost. Brian Hall was born in 1959 and graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1981.  This is his fourth novel, published in 2008. In Brian Hall’s words, “Although this work is properly called a novel, I’ve approached it in the spirit of a biographer who wanted to stretch his usual form to accommodate more speculation than non-fiction generally allows.” He lets us know that his personal contribution was the selecting of the events that he considers “important contours of Frost’s extraordinarily lush and difficult mental landscape”.

The novel begins in 1962 when Frost was 88 years old. It opens with him visiting the Soviet Union as a result of an invitation to visit Nikita Khrushchev by Russian ambassador, Antonin Dobrynin, after meeting at a dinner party.  President Kennedy thought it was a good idea. Frost anticipated that he and Khrushchev would resolve issues that would save the world.

From the first pages of chapter one we gain insight into the inner Frost as he ruminates about his presence in Russia and the likelihood of his success with Khrushchev and with his mission. Over the next 128 chapters and 334 pages, Frost’s life is opened to us. We can only wonder, as we witness the evolution of his brilliant career, how he managed the loss of his father at 11, his only sister being institutionalized, the death of his wife, Elinor, and three of his five children pre-deceasing him. The tragedies he faced introduced a lifetime of psychological distress.

Poetry was Robert Frost’s reason for being and the source of his sustenance. Poetry came first, although he loved his family deeply. But in each phase of his life his writing influenced his self-image, his self-confidence and his sense of self-worth, either because he was unsure of his ability to survive as a poet or because he was unsure about the strength of his reputation once it was established.  Even as one of the most famous poets in the world he wondered whether people understood him or understood his poetry,

Like many other great artists Frost was creating constantly. Poetry, whether his own or the work of others, was always flowing through his mind. Each personal experience, whether positive or negative, was a source of inspiration for him. Brian Hall uses a style of writing that sets up the opportunity to witness, seemingly first-hand, what such extraordinary creativity looks like as it mixes with real life. Rarely, does one have such a first-hand look into the world of a genius.

Janet Neer and Jane Backstrom, Book Review Co-Chairs

Resident Book Review for August, 2019

August 20 – Brief Answers to The Big Questions [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2018] by Stephen Hawking, reviewed by Ralph Strong.


‘Brief …’ Is Stephen Hawking’s Parting Gift To Humanity [NPR]
Stephen Hawking’s final book… [PhysicsWorld ]
An unfinished tome reveals…musings on life’s biggest mysteries [Science]
Thoughts on the Book ‘Brief Answers…’ [Futurism]
Review [The Space Review]
…’Enjoy it, learn from it, and regret it… []
Stephen Hawking’s final musings…[Washington Post]
Brief…by Stephen Hawking – review [The Guardian]
‘Brief’ …Review – God, space, AI, Brexit
[The Guardian]
Hawking’s final book offers brief answers… [PhysOrg]