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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was newly published, a few decades ago. Sadly, it is no less plausible now than then.

I do not mean that the perfect storm of social and political factors is likely to occur in the US any time soon (for which let us give thanks to God!); I mean that underlying trends and tendencies that gave rise to the “Gileadan regime” described by Margaret Atwood are even more present today than ever.

Atwood is a poet, not a politician, and her social sensitivity may be even more acute for that reason. In Gilead, women are utterly disenfranchised. They have no existence independent of men. They may not hold jobs outside the home or use money. If they are unmarried they are assigned to a man, to serve his family as “Marthas” (domestic workers) or “handmaids” (child bearers).

The narrator of the story is Offred. (Handmaids do not even have names of their own. They are called by the name of the man they serve; when they are reassigned, their name is changed accordingly.) Offred was a college educated computer operator and mother of a little girl when the regime came into power. Through her eyes, her thoughts, her fantasies, we are thrust deep inside Atwood’s dystopian vision.

There is no happy ending to The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, rather than ending, it just stops. Offred engaged my emotions. I liked her and felt sorry for her. I felt the pain of her difficult decisions, the humiliation of her capitulations. I was frustrated when the book ended. I wanted to know how the story continued.

I was surprised to find that this book affected me just as strongly in 2013 as it did in 1986, when it was published. It should be part of the cultural curriculum of everyone who thinks about the role of religion in society, the status of women, the rights of individuals. It should also be read by people who love wonderful, evocative writing. A true modern classic.

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The Woman Who Loved an Octopus: And Other Saints’ Tales by Imogen Rhia Herrad

The Woman Who Loved an Octopus: And Other Saints' TalesThe Woman Who Loved an Octopus: And Other Saints’ Tales by Imogen Rhia Herrad

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

According to the blurb on the back:
From the sensuous sea to flight from the world, [this book] is an inspired collection of twelve themed short stories, based on the lives and legends of thirteen Celtic women saints from the first millennium. […] This is not a book of historical tracts or faithful retellings: hugely inventive, Herrad’s stories flood old tales with fresh, or rediscovered meaning.

So far, so good.

I opened the book, looking forward to a rich experience of metachronical truths. I wasn’t expecting saint’s tales in modern dress or pious, moral fables. I was ready for something innovative that would express the inner nature of these extraordinary women in the language of today. I was looking for a golden thread connecting ancient and modern womanhood.

I was disappointed. In fact, I wasn’t able to bring myself to read all the stories. Maybe I’ll return to the book in the future with readjusted expectations, but for now – no, thank you. I found the writing disjointed, the imagery strained, and the apparent attempt at magical realism somewhat less than totally successful. Let’s leave it at that.

My recommendation: Not my cup of tea, but maybe it’s yours.

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Balancing Hope and Cope by Dr. James C. Salwitz

It seems to me that while we should never forget the possibility of the miraculous, and try always to avoid despair, that our patients are powerful beings and perhaps our true goal should be to move from the limits of hope, to the freedom and possibility of cope. (Emphasis mine – KT)

These words were written by James C. Salwitz MD, a medical oncologist and clinical professor of medicine in New Jersey (USA).  He blogs at Sunrise Rounds and is a frequent guest blogger on, which is where I read the following post. It is reblogged here with the kind permission of Dr. Salwitz.

Have you experienced “the limits of hope”? Do you know “the freedom and possibility of cope”? Please read the essay and let us know what you think.


The fine balance between hope and cope in cancer patients

At tumor board recently, we discussed what we tell our patients about prognosis.  Some oncologists give detailed information, including specific survival times.  Others never discuss the future, and let the events of the illness teach patient and family.  All try to adjust what they say by what the patient needs, because each physician expressed one core goal; “Whatever I say I don’t want the patient to lose hope.”  I thought about that message for a while and decided they are wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “hope as to “entertain the expectation of something desired.” Synonyms, according to Roget, include”faith, possibility, silver lining and no cause for despair.”  These are wonderful and powerful feelings.  My concern is that they are feelings which have at their core a tendency to look away from hard truth.  If our primary goal is to “hope” that things will go well, it may mean that we deny the reality that they are likely to go badly.  I worry that when we deny reality we deny ourselves the chance to cope, instead of hope.

A 65-year old man has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  His oncologist does not want to take away the man’s hope, so he immediately offers chemotherapy.  The doctor does not say that this is a 100% fatal condition, but instead spends their visits talking about treatment and side effects. The man spends the next four months getting chemo, which has a minimal benefit.  Then, instead of talking about prognosis, another chemo is offered.  Never does the man hear the message, “you have a fatal disease, there is no absolute rule you must take chemo, you may want to spend the time you have doing something other than visiting the cancer clinic.”  Hope of a chemotherapy induced blue-sky substitutes for complete information.

We all balance, hope and cope.  We must use denial of the bad things that can happen, just to get through our normal daily lives, let alone deal with disease.  Hopes and dreams are important to our emotional health and each of us has different needs.  On the other hand, in my experience, the vast majority of people are emotionally strong and, with patience, teaching, support and love, can learn to cope with even terrible news.

A colleague of mine told me the story of a young neighbor, with school age children, who died of lung cancer.  While she underwent aggressive medical care, she also received honest information regarding the fatal nature of her disease.  She used the time at the end of her life to design, write and even film what she wanted for the future of her children, so that she would always be part of their lives.  If she had been given only hope, and never the opportunity to cope, she might have might have gone blindly forward with treatment and been astonished when suddenly the end arrived.

I have deep respect for the compassion of physicians who commit their careers to sitting at cancer’s bedside. Their sensitivity to the emotional needs of their patients is in the finest tradition of their profession.  However, I wonder whether there is a tendency in modern medicine to say little, offer too much and perhaps deny, in the service of hope.  It seems to me that while we should never forget the possibility of the miraculous, and try always to avoid despair, that our patients are powerful beings and perhaps our true goal should be to move from the limits of hope, to the freedom and possibility of cope.

Guest Post by Aliza Bat-Ami: Another View of the BDS Campaign

A couple of weeks ago, on Wednesday, the 16th of January, I posted a controversial video called “Israel & Palestine: a very short introduction“. At that time, a very dear, longtime friend of mine who writes under the name Aliza Bat-Ami left a detailed comment, disagreeing with the message of that video. You can read her comment here

In the interest of respectful and open dialogue even (especially!) when people strongly disagree on important matters, I invited Aliza to write a guest post of rebuttal. I am honored to present it here. You are welcome to leave your comments here, or to email Aliza directly by clicking on her name below the title.

Thank you, Aliza, for allowing me to publish your response.

Another view of the B.D.S. campaign.

 Aliza Bat-Ami

The video “Israel and Palestine – a very short introduction.” starts by stating that  Jews fled Europe after “harsh persecution” and  that they were encourage by “the Zionists”  to came the Land “where the Jews had an age-old connection“(my emphasis).

We have indeed:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
…. How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

These words, written over two and a half millennia ago, written at the time of the first forced dispersion from the Land of Israel to Babylon, sum up our connection to this place.

But, after many years and much pain and difficulties, in 1948 the modern State of Israel was declared.   The video makes it very clear that the Arabs rejected the proposed two-state solution presented them by the British (and have consistently rejected every offer since.)

Much happened thereafter, events which were presented in the video in a biased, simplistic way, ending up with the supposed “land-grab” of the West Bank.
[Use these links for accurate information on the formation of Israel, about Israel and the West Bank , the peace process, and the Palestinian refugee problem.]

The video concludes by a call to boycott, disinvest and sanction

Israel (B.D.S) for her deeds, as this will lead to a (non-specified) just peace.

This isn’t going to happen, for the following reasons.

First and foremost it is clear that the underlying aim of much of the anti-Israel B.D.S. movement (and certainly as presented in this video), is the destruction of Israel.  Even Norman Finkelstein, no friend of Israel, makes this point (see video).  The threat of extinction is no inducement to change, rather it encourages protective strategies. So why expect Israel to respond to such threats by national suicide?

Secondly, the video runs together the unsettled issue of Israel and the Palestinians, and the situation of Arab citizens of Israel. These are not the same issue at all.
Yes, things could be better but the video also makes no mention of the equality afforded to Israeli Arab, nor the fact that prominent and outspoken Arab critics of Israel like Ahmed Tibi and Haneen Zoabi sit in the Knesset, nor to the presence of Arab Israelis in all parts of society, including the High Court and universities. It also ignores the issue of obligations of all citizens in a democracy (Article 29 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Yes, things could be better in the administered territories too, but B.D.S.  campaigns do nothing to help the Palestinians improve their lives, begin state building, or develop democratic institutions. They do not advance peace but only make the parties more inflexible.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not black and white. Arguments supporting boycotts ignore the context of Israel’s actions in order to justify penalizing only Israel.

Those behind the boycott efforts never mention the on-going terrorism that Israelis have suffered from, and they never mention groups like the PLO, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Have you actually read these documents?  In case you think I am exaggerating, here they are in plain English: The Palestinian National Charter: 1968 ; the Hamas Covenant 1988The Hezbollah Manifesto  (from the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, an NGO dedicated to the aim of the  ‘Cedar revolution’ site; or  from a pro-Hezbollah site, here).

The world should really pay all the Arab leaders the courtesy of listening to what they say, believing them and taking them at their word. What is meant in effect is the dismantling of the State of Israel and the dispersion (or elimination) of the Jewish population.

The video also mentions the USA as a “terrible friend” to Israel, supporting and enabling all “crimes”. At least in that the B.D.S. supporters might be encouraged by the commencement of President Barack Hussein Obama’s second term. He might well prove to be a “friend” to Israel more to their taste. If that happens, I hope that the Jews will turn to a different Friend, the God of Israel, who has a longer track-record of commitment and involvement with events here.

What do I hope for our future?  Peace and health and the possibility of happiness.  And yes, righteousness and justice at all levels in my society.
I would like to live in a society without want and conflict, where all members take equal part and also give back equally.

If you want to do something for peace, then come and visit with an open mind, and take part in some constructive joint program (e.g. Abraham Fund,) to help all the different people here.

The position that Israel is the cause of the sad situation in the Middle East ( at the very least)  has become the unexamined and – mostly – unchallenged dogma of current world opinion, especially in my own native land of BritainBut does that make it factual and true?
The truth of these allegations can easily be checked online by consulting source documents, or summaries such as these links (the formation of Israel Israel and the West Bank , the peace process, and the Palestinian refugee problem.)

How Red Tape Made Me Grateful

Before I get to my main point, I’d just like to point out in disgust that virtually all the images that showed up when I searched for red tape women were of naked  women who had indigestion (or perhaps what the photographer imagined was a sexy pout) and were wrapped up with red ribbon in some kind of soft porn bondage pose. Others showed women with red tape across their mouths or tied around their (sometimes pregnant) bellies with a big presentation bow. 

I don’t intend to do a feminist deconstruction of the phenomenon; I just wanted to point out that I am appalled. These images reinforce the idea that women do not deal with the realities of day-to-day life in  21st century industrialized countries, that they are passive and that they are objects to be given as gifts. I am seriously annoyed.

Right. Enough of that.

Yet again I am faced with the problem of getting more CT scans. It is a problem because 1) the “sick fund” (the Israeli version of a health maintenance organization) to which I belong only works with one imaging center. 2) That imaging center will not accept patients who are allergic to iodine, whether or not their own physician does the prep and whether or not the test requires iodine. 3) I am allergic to iodine.

Now, I know that I could get the sick fund to send me to the imaging center that will accept me. But I also know that this would take time and would involve a lot of emails and faxes and phone calls and meetings and calmly-and-patiently-yet-firmly insisting on my rights… and, quite frankly, I don’t have the energy for all that. So I’ve decided to just pay for it out of my pocket.

How does this make me grateful?

  • The chest-abdomen-pelvis CT will cost the same as the head CT alone, and that price is much lower than you would see in the US, for example. It will cost me the equivalent of around USD 120. I am grateful we have affordable medical care.
  • I have the money to spend.
  • I have the ability to negotiate the red tape bedecked halls of the sick fund administration, and I also have the freedom to decide whether or not to do so.
  • Not only do I have the freedom to decide, but I have the ability to make the decision. I am not paralyzed by anxiety and stress.

All in all, I am grateful today.

Late news – Arrangements are all made; I’ll have the scans Monday afternoon (in three days’ time). 🙂