Book Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Expanded Edition, edited by Hope Nicholson (2016)

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A Love Letter to Geek Girls, Young and Old

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for allusions to rape.)

You know where God lives and God is in paint and ink and pencil and the page: you fell in love and became that love. Transformed, like in a fairy tale. A girl who became a wolf, focused and hungry for only one thing: story.

You never stopped hunting stories. Little wolf, persistent but timid, prowling shelves and stacks; anywhere there were books, that was the forest you claimed. You found a frontier in your school library, rushing inside every morning with exquisite relief because books were home, books were where you were most alive, books were places you could pretend you were brave. Books were walls against everything that frightened you.

– “Ghost,” Marjorie Liu

The Brontë sisters had such lady boners for the Duke of Wellington that they wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction about the guy.

– “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” J. M. Frey

Any project with Margaret Atwood’s name attached is an instabuy for me, so there was no doubt that I’d preorder a copy of the new and expanded edition of The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. (My only question is, where the heck was I when the Kickstarter was open?)

While Atwood’s quartet of four-panel comics is cute and super-relatable, it’s actually not the highlight of the anthology (surprise!). Nope, that honor would have to go to Marjorie Liu’s essay “Ghost,” which is simply breathtaking, threatening to unspool your soul till its innermost bits are laid bare – and then stitch and crimp you back together, stronger and bolder than before. (And all in the space of four and a half pages, at that.) Of course, being a sucker for pop culture criticism, Laura Neubert’s “They Bury You in White” and Megan Kearney’s “Regards to the Golbin King” are close ties for second place.

A mix of short nonfiction and comics (“They Bury You in White” and “Regards to the Golbin King” both fall into this category), the many and varied contributions to The Secret Loves of Geek Girls tackle a wide range of topics, from falling in love with fictional characters to navigating the perils and pitfalls of dating, both on- and offline; exploring and defining one’s sexuality in the pre- and post-digital age; surviving and thriving after a divorce; bonding over shared passions; and the perks of platonic relationships and girly gossip.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood (2016)

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Margaret Atwood makes Shakespeare better. Margaret Atwood makes everything better.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)

He’s been chewing over his revenge for twelve years – it’s been in the background, a constant undercurrent like an ache. Though he’s been tracking Tony and Sal on the Net, they’ve always been out of his reach. But now they’ll be entering his space, his sphere. How to grasp them, how to enclose them, how to ambush them? Suddenly revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare. Oh, to watch their two faces! Oh, to twist the wire! He wants to see pain. “We’re doing The Tempest,” he said.

Felix Phillips’s life – or at least his life thus far – is like something out of a Greek tragedy. As the Artistic Director (and sometimes-director/actor/star) of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, he pushes the envelope, rides his actors hard, and produces some pretty edgy fare – which often puts him in the crosshairs of the Board. Like many of the creative types he works with, Felix is more or less married to his job. That is, until he meets Nadia and is sucked into a late(r)-in-life romance. In the span of just four years, Felix got married; had a child; lost Nadia to a staph infection after childbirth; lost his daughter Miranda to meningitis; and lost his job at the Makeshiweg Festival.

Felix blames his assistant Tony Price for that last. According to Felix’s line of reasoning, Tony waited until Felix was vulnerable – distracted by grief – to swoop in and steal his job. A scheme made easier by Felix himself: too caught up in the magic of the theater, Felix was more than happy to hand over the more mundane tasks – boozing and schmoozing the donors and patrons, for example – to his assistant. Much like Prospero – the protagonist of The Tempest, which Felix was producing when he was unceremoniously canned – he paved the way for his own betrayal.

Devastated, in more ways than one – for the now-cancelled The Tempest was to be staged in his late daughter’s honor – Felix assumes an alias (F. Duke), moves to a hovel in the middle of nowhere, and becomes a recluse. A recluse visited by the apparition of his dead daughter, who mysteriously ages alongside Felix.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last: A Novel (Positron), Margaret Atwood (2015)

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

“Never mind which wife is whose,” says Jocelyn. “We can’t waste time on the sexual spaghetti.”

How bad are things when you can get nostalgic about living in your car?

The dystopian society at the heart of The Heart Goes Last is surprisingly mundane – which makes it all the more chilling. Stan and Charmaine live in the northeastern United States, which has been hit especially hard by the latest recession. Things went to ratshit seemingly overnight (“Someone had lied, someone had cheated, someone had shorted the market, someone had inflated currency. Not enough jobs, too many people.”). Charmaine’s company, an upscale retirement chain called Ruby Slippers, scaled back its eastern operations, leaving Charmaine out of a job; Stan’s position at Dimple Robotics soon followed. They held onto their cozy starter home as long as they could, but before you can say “outsourcing,” they’d lost that too. From solidly middle class to homeless, in the blink of an eye.

Now they sleep in their car, surviving on the meager wages Charmaine earns waiting tables in a seedy bar, desperately searching for work and trying to stay ahead of the roving gangs of thieves and rapists that own the streets come nightfall. So when Charmaine spots an ad for the Positron Project – an experimental city/prison in Consilience – the two are understandably quick to sign their lives away. Full employment, zero crime, free housing – and the only way you can leave is in a pine box. But why would anyone want to abandon the safety of these walls to go back out there? You can’t eat freedom, yo.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery & the Macabre, Nancy Kilpatrick & Caro Soles, eds. (2015)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

There’s a piece by 16-year-old Margaret Atwood! Eeep!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence, as well as transphobic and homophobic bullying and suicide.)

I consider myself a bit of a Poe fangirl. Not to the tune of being able to reenact entire scenes from The Tomb of Ligeia or keeping a raven as a pet; but as in the first (and only!) gift my father every personally picked out for me was a leather-bound collection of Poe’s complete works (I’m vegan now, but I keep it around for sentimental reasons) and I might, one day, name one of my rescue dogs Annabel Lee. It’s fair to say that I’m interested, but not obsessed.

So when I spotted nEvermore! in Library Thing’s July batch, it was Poe’s name that grabbed by attention – but Margaret Atwood’s that really sealed the deal. If I’m a bit of a Poe fangirl, then I’m freaking Annie Wilkes when it comes to Atwood. I exaggerate, but not by much.

Edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery & the Macabre features twenty-two stories that are inspired by Poe; contain elements from Poe’s oeuvre; and/or are retellings of his stories. Some are more modern takes on Poe, while others employ similar language and have the same weirdly sinister vibe. If you’re a hardcore Poe fan, probably you’ll get more out of the stories than the casual or non-fan; there’s a lot of name-dropping, as well as references to real, historical events from Poe’s life. However, I wouldn’t limit the audience just to those familiar with Poe; many of the stories are solid enough to stand on their own. Bonus points: Each story is prefaced with a brief introduction by the author(s), for added context.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Blondes: A Novel, Emily Schultz (2015)

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

“Wow!” is right!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, forced pregnancy, and allusions to rape. This review contains minor spoilers, which are clearly marked.)

If you survive, the world you grow up in will be one that has experienced intense panic and distrust, violence and hysteria – though that’s a loaded word. I don’t think I would have used it before this past year. But now? All of us living with a disease that affects only girls and women? Hysteria is so bang on.

Authorities are now able to track the progression of symptoms, which are indeed similar to rabies. The public is advised to be wary – and here the prompter went into a list of symptoms – of women with raised voices, acting violently…

Lumbering, limping, exhibiting imbalance…

Flailing or throwing any object…

Grimacing, displaying a downturned expression…

“We’re not allowed to have downturned expressions?” the girl beside me muttered. “I mean,” she said a bit louder but still to me, “what if we’re just worried? In a bad mood? PMS?”

Several heads turned to look at her. It must have made her nervous because she ran her hand back through her hair. She was pale as an elephant’s tusk. […]

As I finished my sandwich, it occurred to me that the news captions on TV had all been directed at men. There was nothing about the symptoms women should look for in themselves.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Glass Arrow, Kristen Simmons (2015)

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Meet The Handmaid’s Tale’s Younger YA Cousin

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review from the publisher. Trigger warning for rape – including allusions to rape, at least one rape attempt, medical rape, and general rape culture – human trafficking, slavery, and violence.)

My ma taught me one thing from the beginning: My body is mine. My own. No one else’s. Just because someone thinks they have rights to it, doesn’t make it true. I thought I understood that before, but here, in this place, it’s become more clear than ever how right she was. My flesh and blood – it’s the only thing I own, and I’ll defend it until I can’t fight anymore.

Behind us are two or three dozen country people from the outlying towns. With them are cages of chicken and goats, sheep, even cattle. That’s where we fit on market day. Between the executions and the livestock sales.

Fifteen-year-old Aiyana (Aya to her family; Clover to her captors) is a rarity – a free woman living in the forests of Isor. Along with her mostly-adopted family – her cousin Salma; fellow refugee Metea; and Metea’s children, Bian, Tam, and Nina – Aya hunts and gathers the food she needs, prays to Mother Hawk for guidance, and just generally goes about her business, all while evading detection by the feared Trackers.

In the nearby city of Glasscaster, women are items to be bought and sold. Property. Slaves. Young women may be purchased for sex (read: rape) or for breeding, only to be foisted off on pimps in the Black Lanes after they’re all “used up.” Along with “First Rounders” (read: virgins), “wild girls” are among the most valuable of them all – not only do Magnates take especial pleasure in breaking these formerly free women down, but their time outside of the city and its attendant pollution has blessed them with superior fertility. Lucky them.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood (1969)

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A Perfectly Atwoodian Anti-Romance

five out of five stars

Ever since her engagement to Peter Wollander, Marian McAlpin has been unable to eat. Not for lack of desire, mind you; rather, her body simply refuses to ingest certain foods under threat of regurgitation. It started with the meats: beef (cows), pork (pigs), poultry (chickens), lambs, and finally seafood (fishes and oysters). Next came eggs, then fruits and vegetables, until even toast and OJ are off-limits. The nearer the date of her wedding, the more ferocious the rebellion brewing in her belly.

By all accounts, her soon-to-be husband is a fine specimen: handsome, educated, well-dressed with impeccable manners, a real up-and-coming lawyer. Any woman should be thrilled with such a catch. So why does Marian find herself drawn to Duncan, a sullen and self-absorbed grad student who professes not to care for her – almost as vociferously as she claims her own disinterest in him?

The Edible Woman is a sort of anti-romance, written in Atwood’s distinctive style. (There’s no shortage of dry humor here.) It’s obvious that Marian and Peter are ill-matched from the start; and when the two become engaged (during an especially alarming fight/flight), their relationship continues to unravel. For Marian, anyway; her fiance couldn’t be more content with the retro arrangement. (The Edible Woman was originally published in 1969, and it shows in the archaic attitudes towards gender roles and marriage. Attitudes that persist today: for example, did you know that 50% of Americans think it should be illegal for a woman to keep her last name after marriage? I guess lesbians are just supposed to swap last names then?)

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Tent, Margaret Atwood (2007)

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

“your tent is made of paper”

four out of five stars

Reminiscent in look and style of Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994), The Tent (2006) is a short collection of Margaret Atwood’s stories, prose, and poetry – much of it more recent, some of it previously published elsewhere (including “The Walrus,” “Harper’s Magazine,” and several special fundraising anthologies). As with three-poled tents, THE TENT is “supported,” in a manner of speaking, by three sections of related material.

While the stories are varied and diverse, time is a central theme, with lives bending, flexing, and twisting around the stuff. Time is not always linear, but folds and flexes (“Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey…Stuff,” in Doctor-speak.) Time “folds you in its arms and gives you one last kiss, and then it flattens you out and folds you up and tucks you away until it’s time for you to become someone else’s past time, and then time folds again.” [“Time Folds,” page 148.] Time softens and broadens, reunites and tears asunder. Time both binds and separates us all.

As with most anthologies, some of the pieces are more memorable than others. Most are complex, hinting at layer upon layer of meaning, the intricacies of which the reader can only begin to grasp. (Such is Margaret Atwood!) As per usual, those stories I love the best feature nonhuman protagonists (“Our Cat Enters Heaven” – and gets his testicles back; “Thylacine Ragout”; “The Animals Reject Their Names and Things Return to Their Origins”) or are retellings of classics, be they fairy tales or Shakespeare (“Encouraging the Young” – right into my gingerbread house; “It’s Not Easy Being Half-Divine”; “Horatio’s Version”; “Nightingale”). Nostalgic, heartbreaking, and not a little cruel, “Bring Back Mom: An Invocation” is another favorite, as is “Post-Colonial”: “It’s a constant worry, this we, this them.” [page 100]

Though I prefer Atwood’s novels to her shorter works, The Tent and other such collections are helping to tide me over until the release of Mad Adam. Let’s hope that she doesn’t take quite as long as dear Horatio!

Perfect for: hardcore Atwood fans, or lovers of feminist poetry and eclectic short fiction. Keep it on your nightstand for some impromptu, late-night reading.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined.)

Book Review: The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood (2005)

Monday, June 18th, 2012

Odysseus, what a jerkface!

five out of five stars

Aptly named, The Penelopiad is a feminist retelling of The Odyssey and The Iliad, as only Margaret Atwood could imagine it.* Narrated by Odysseus’s long-suffering wife Penelope, the events in Homer’s epics are reexamined from her perspective. Now residing in modern-day Hades, Penelope tells of her early life; her “courtship” by Odysseus (read: being won in a contest like so much livestock, after which time the winner’s spoils, bride included, was quickly whisked away to Odysseus’s own kingdom); the hardships she endured while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war and then making his way home; and ending with his fatal, bloody return, which culminated in the deaths of Penelope’s twelve maids. Among their crimes? Allowing themselves to be raped by Penelope’s suitors. Penelope’s accounts are interspersed with occasional choral interludes from the doomed maids – who, like their mistress, cannot be silenced, even in death.

Even if your knowledge of The Odyssey begins and ends with 10th grade English class (guilty as charged!), there’s still much to enjoy in The Penelopiad. (Though the greater your background, the more improved your reading.) A novella, The Penelopiad is a disappointingly slim volume – my paperback copy weighs in at just 193 pages, with generous margins. Given the heft of the source material, I wish Atwood’s retelling was bit longer. For example, the years of the Trojan war – when Penelope was managing Odysseus’s kingdom on her own, at a time when it was unusual for women to do so – was glossed over in just a few pages. It would have been nice to visit Penelope during this period in her life, to see how she “done the impossible,” so to speak. (Any Browncoats in the house?)

Ditto: the maids. Maligned as they were by Odysseus and his son Telemachus, they deserve more of a voice than they were afforded.

While I’m tempted to deduct one start for brevity, I can’t seem to bring myself to do so. The Penelopiad has quickly become one of my favorite Atwood books, right behind the Mad Adam trilogy (to be fair, I’d rather the author spend her limited time working on the third installation, as opposed to a longer version of The Penelopiad!) and The Handmaid’s Tale. After suffering through both The Odyssey and The Iliad in high school, I hope more teachers add The Penelopiad to their course outline. Had women’s perspectives been more prominently featured, I might have taken a greater interest in some of these “classics.”

* Though it’s interesting to note that Atwood herself doesn’t consider The Penelopiad “feminist”: “I wouldn’t even call it feminist. Every time you write something from the point of view of a woman, people say that it’s feminist.” Touché, Margaret!

(This review is also posted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote me helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Good Bones and Simple Murders, Margaret Atwood (1994)

Monday, May 7th, 2012

2012-04-26 - Good Bones & Simple Murders - 0003

Look who dropped in during my reading of “Cold-Blooded”!
——————————

“The good bones are in here.”

four out of five stars

I snagged a used copy of Good Bones and Simple Murders (Margaret Atwood, 1994) on Amazon, whilst shopping around for some of Atwood’s older novels. A slim collection of short stories and poetry, Good Bones is an eclectic mix, with illustrations by the author peppered throughout. The stories cover a little bit of everything: fantasy, mystery, science fiction, speculative fiction, feminism, rape culture, gender wars, dating, death – you name it.

Many of the pieces are hit and miss; my favorites are the scifi stories that hinge on an environmental or animal-friendly theme:

– “Cold-Blooded” – An alien race of matriarchal moth people visit planet earth – or as they call it, “The Planet of the Moths,” a nickname owing to the fact that their moth cousins outnumber us by billions – and find humans sorely lacking in both culture and intelligence;

2012-04-26 - Good Bones & Simple Murders - 0008

“To my sisters, the Iridescent Ones, the Egg-Bearers, the Many-Faceted, greetings from the Planet of the Moths.” A page from “Cold-Blooded,” which also appears in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011).
——————————

– “My Life As a Bat” – A series of reflections on the narrator’s past life as a bat, including a disturbing (and, as it just so happens, true) anecdote about WWII-era experiments in which bats were made into unwitting suicide bombers;

– “Hardball” – A piece of dystopian speculative fiction in which humans, having decimated their environment, have retreated to live under a giant dome. Since space is limited, the population must be kept in check: for every birth, one person is chosen to die via a lottery. Care to guess what becomes of the remains?

Also enjoyable are those stories which reimagine classic literature: “Gertrude Talks Back” gives voice to Hamlet’s long-suffering mother, and “Unpopular Gals” and “Let Us Now Praise Stupid Women” celebrates those villains and “airheads” without which fairy tales would not exist.

2012-04-26 - Good Bones & Simple Murders - 0012

“He’s a carnivore, you’re a vegetarian. That’s what you have to get over.”
– page 84, “Liking Men”
——————————

While at times difficult to read, “Liking Men” is another standout; this is the piece that deals with sexual assault, vis à vis a woman’s journey back to coping with – and even loving – men (or rather, one man in particular) again after her rape.

A must for fans of Margaret Atwood!

(Is there a nickname for us, like HDM’s Sraffies? Atwolytes, maybe? Mad Adams and Angry Eves?)

PS – Dear Margaret: Fishes are indeed animals.

2012-04-26 - Good Bones & Simple Murders - 0020

“My eyes are situated in my head, which also possesses two small holes for the entrance and exit of air, the invisible fluid we swim in, and one larger hole, equipped with bony protuberances called teeth, by means of which I destroy and assimilate certain parts of my surroundings and change them into my self. This is called eating. The things I eat include roots, berries, nuts, fruits, leaves, and the muscle tissues of various animals and fish. Sometimes I eat their brains and glands as well. I do not as a rule eat insects, grubs, eyeballs, or the snouts of pigs [what, no hotdogs? – ed.], though these are eaten with relish in other countries.” – page 133, “Homelanding”
——————————

Can we please stop pretending otherwise? xoxo – A vegan feminist fan.

(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote me helpful if you think it so!)

…greetings from the Planet of Moths.

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

2012-02-01 - In Other Worlds Excerpt - 0007

A(nother) page from Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011).

excerpted from the short story “Cold-Blooded.”

To my sisters, the Iridescent Ones, the Egg-Bearers, the Many-Faceted, greetings from the Planet of Moths.

At last we have succeeded in establishing contact with the creatures here who, in their ability to communicate, to live in colonies, and to construct technologies, most resemble us, although in these particulars they have not advanced beyond a rudimentary level.

During our first observation of these “blood creatures,” as we have termed them – after the colourful red liquid that is to be found in their bodies, and that appears to be of great significance to them in their poems, wars, and religious rituals – we supposed them incapable of speech, as those specimens we were able to examine entirely lacked the organs for it. They had no wing-casings with which to stridulate – indeed they had no wings; they had to mandibles to click; and the chemical method was unknown to them, since they were devoid of antennae. “Smell,” for them, is a perfunctory affair, confined to a flattened and numbed appendage on the front of the head. But after a time, we discovered that the incoherent squeakings and gruntings that emerged from them, especially when pinched, were in fact a form of language, and after that we made rapid progress.

five tributes

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

2012-02-01 - In Other Worlds Excerpt - 0001

A page from Margaret Atwood’s latest, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011).

excerpt from the short story “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet”

3. In the third age, money became a god. It was all-powerful, and out of control. It began to talk. It began to create on its own. It created feasts and famines, songs of joy, lamentations. It created greed and hunger, which were its two faces. Towers of glass rose at its name, were destroyed and rose again. It began to eat things. It ate whole forests, croplands, and the lives of children. It ate armies, ships, and cities. No one could stop it. To have it was a sign of grace.

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the BBC Radio Dramatization (2000)

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

This is part nine in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

The Handmaid's Tale (BBC Radio 4, 2000, 2)

The dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale produced and aired by BBC Radio 4 in 2000 is more than a direct reading of the novel. Rather, it’s a full-cast performance, complete with sound effects, that puts the film version to shame.

In direct contrast to Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film effort, the producers of the 2000 BBC 4 radio dramatization of The Handmaid’s Tale succeed in creating a moving reenactment of the novel – without sacrificing any of Margaret Atwood’s vision. Granted, the BBC audio recording is a bit lengthier than the film; it spans three CDs, totaling no more than 4.5 hours (the film clocks in at 109 minutes), allowing extra time for Kate’s narration to unfold. Still, even the producers of the BBC dramatization had to cut several prominent sequences in order to condense the story. Unlike Schlöndorff and company, they chose wisely, and also reworked other aspects of the dramatization to compensate for the lost pieces of the novel.

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the 1990 Film Adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff

Friday, September 19th, 2008

This is part eight in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

The Handmaid's Tale (Movie - 1990)

If you’ve never read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1990 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff might seem an interesting enough movie. Set in a future in which Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the government, the film paints a terrifying picture of an American theocracy. Women, homosexuals, religious minorities, people of color, political dissidents – all suffer under the oppressive thumb of The Republic of Gilead.

Those familiar with the 1985 novel will see that much of the basic story remains the same in Schlöndorff’s on-screen adaptation. The former United States is in the midst of a Civil War; The Republic of Gilead holds much of the East Coast, while dissenting religious and secular groups wage war to the South and West. Within the Republic’s borders, a strict social structure is enforced. Men are ranked according to prestige and merit (Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, and businessmen and professionals), while women are grouped according to social function, which is primarily determined by their reproductive health and racial makeup (Aunts, Wives and Daughters, Econowives, Handmaids, Marthas, and Unwomen). While no Gileadean citizen is truly free, it is the females who bear the brunt of Gilead’s religious tyranny.

It is in this context that we meet Kate (Offred), a Handmaid who has been assigned to Commander Fred (“Of Fred”) and his Wife, Serena Joy. The Handmaid’s Tale is Kate’s tale, told in her very own voice, through a disjointed series of flashbacks and present-day narrations. Through Kate’s eyes, we reflect upon “the days before”; we learn how the Sons of Jacob were able to destabilize and eventually topple the American government and institute their own patriarchal theocracy; and we get a glimpse of what daily life in the Republic is like.

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Dear Dystopian Deniers

Monday, September 8th, 2008

This is part seven in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Dear Dystopian Deniers

The Handmaid's Tale (Book - 1985)

Perhaps the most widespread criticism I’ve seen of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is improbable, unrealistic, a stretch of the imagination.

To wit:

Not Realistic Enough to be Scary; [A]lthough there were a great deal of things about this book that touched me and made me think, I found it simply unbelievable that anyone, male or female, would have tolerated this social system for very long.

Handmaid Tale…; Atwood made this society where it is supposed to be the future, yet women are still being repressed by male dominated society. Theocracy should have been eliminated by this point in time.

Trite and unrealistic.; This book in no way convinced me that American society would end up in the bizarre ‘1984’-like ripoff presented here. To even suggest this as the logical future is completely shortsighted and ignores all advances women have made towards equality in the past hundred years or so.

…and my personal favorite, from “a female conservative”:

Intriguing, but Unlikely; Several of the other reviewers argue that Atwood’s vision is not at all farfetched because of the state of women in Islamic countries. Exactly! I had the same thought in the back of my head the whole time I was reading this book. It is so-called Islamic countries in the Middle East and not Western nations where women are limited to lives as wives and mothers and where the sanctity of the individual is not respected. Had Atwood set her novel in present-day Iran or Iraq, it would ring true in a way that setting it in near-future-day America does not. We have a centuries-old tradition of respecting individual rights in America.

Shorter female conservative: It’s the darkies who are bigots, silly!

Or: What slavery?

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists

Friday, August 29th, 2008

This is part six in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 07)

This blamer was just a wee little babycake when Margaret Atwood was penning The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet twenty-plus years later, the characters and political climate still ring true. Has our society progressed so little?

Serena Joy, who receives relatively little attention in The Handmaid’s Tale, is perhaps the most engrossing character aside from Kate. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Beverly LaHaye, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly (she of “it is legally, morally, and technically impossible for husbands to rape their wives, because women have consented to a lifetime of sex-on-demand through marriage” fame) and the like. In “the days before”, Serena Joy was an evangelical preacher on the teevee. The type of woman who made a living by scolding other women for working outside the home. In other words, a hypocrite:

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

This is part five in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post. (An especially timely post, considering last night’s religious interrogation of “church chat” between Barack Obama, John McCain and Rick Warren.)

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 04)

Just as the patriarchy hurts men as well as women, so too does a theocracy hurt believers and non-believers alike.

Although Atwood never identifies Gilead’s sect, we do know that it’s a Christian theocracy. We can eliminate Catholics, Quakers and Baptists, for Gilead forces young Catholic nuns to either renounce their religion and become Handmaids, or else face exile to The Colonies; fights against the Quakers, many of which are helping Gilead’s women escape via the Underground Femaleroad; and is engaged in open warfare with the Baptists. Given the state of current American religion and politics, Southern Baptist seems the best bet, however, all we can say about Gilead’s religion is that it is a fundamentalist Christian sect that is vehemently opposed by most of the other American religious sects – Christian or otherwise.

In fact, Gilead considers every religious sect other than its own the enemy, and demands that their adherents submit and convert – or die. The only believers which were spared during the Civil War were practicing Jews, who could either convert or immigrate to Israel. (Not as lucky a fate as it sounds; according to our future scientists, Gilead “privatiz[ed ] the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic.” KBR, anyone?)

Gilead’s fundamentalist reading of the Bible, coupled with their brute force and religious zealotry, proved harmful to believers and non-believers alike, who were forced to submit to Gilead’s dogma or die. Nor did being “Christian enough” placate the Sons of Jacob – all citizens must follow Gilead’s religiously derived laws, to the letter, or face draconian punishments. A woman caught reading, for example, might lose a hand. No matter whether that woman agrees with Gilead and views “reading while female” a Biblical sin; she must abide by her government’s reading of holy doctrine either way.

In a theocracy, there’s no guarantee that the government will share your interpretation of the Bible. Better still to enshrine strong civil liberties protections in the Constitution, along with a healthy respect for the separation of church and state – that way, no one can force their religious beliefs on others, or have their own religious beliefs taken from them.

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too

Friday, August 8th, 2008

This is part four in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 03)

While the women of Gilead bear the greatest burden of living in a patriarchy built on a misogynistic religion – after all, they are property – most of Gileadean men don’t fare well, either. The patriarchy hurts men, too.

Like women, men are ranked according to Gilead’s rigid social structure: Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, common working men, and dissidents. Those who helped form Gilead, the original loyalists and its founding fathers, sit at the top of the social ladder. Next come the newly converted True Believers ™, and then down the line until you have the political dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who sinned in “the days before”. Some of the “troublemakers” are executed, while others may be sent to work in The Colonies alongside the Unwomen. Such an intractable hierarchy only benefits those few men lucky enough to sit atop the pyramid.

(Interestingly, Gilead does not have a corresponding term for men; there are no “Unmen”. Perhaps this can be attributed to Gilead’s cult of mother worship in a time of rampant infertility? Here, all women are expected to aspire to motherhood as their greatest, indeed their only goal. So the worst thing you can call a woman is not-a-woman, an Unwoman. What does this say about the value of men in Gilead?)

All men are expected to obey their superiors unquestioningly. Though they have greater access to knowledge than the women, their freedom is severely limited. The government controls the media: the television only broadcasts religious programming and propaganda-disguised-as-news. Printed material must also submit to government regulations. Subversive materials from “the days before” – books, magazines, CDs, VHS tapes, etc. – is banned by the government. Citizens were instructed to destroy these sinful possessions, and to ensure complicity, Gilead conducted house-to-house raids in which all “contraband” was confiscated and destroyed. Ditto for other insufficiently pious items such as unauthorized clothing, blasphemous knickknacks and any items with written words that the womenfolk might read on accident.

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

This is part three in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 05)

In addition to being a misogynistic society, Gilead is also a racist and homophobic society. Unlike misogyny, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is notable for what it does not say about race and homosexuality.

In her narration, Kate very rarely mentions race. When describing people, skin color is almost never explicitly referenced. Through subtle clues, we can discern that many of the main characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are white: Kate describes her brown hair, the Commander’s silver hair, Serena Joy’s blond hair, Nick’s angular French facial features, Ofglen’s pink, plump face, Janine’s pink nose. Nameless Guardians have peach-colored mustaches and pale faces. Gilead is overwhelmingly white – except for its laborers. Rita and Cora, Commander Fred’s Marthas, are women of color. We know this of Rita because Kate describes her “brown arm”, but can only assume this of Cora.

Kate describes Marthas as women whose previous work in the domestic sphere has instilled in them a compliant, subservient nature. Wiki defines Marthas as “infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude.” (I’m paraphrasing Kate’s description, as I was unable to locate the exact quote.) While there’s some speculation as to whether Marthas are African Americans – thus conjuring America’s history of slavery – it’s unclear whether all the Marthas share the same race and ethnicity, or if any women of color who are appropriately subservient and compliant are given the option of working as Marthas as opposed to dying in The Colonies. It is my impression that Rita and Cora are Latinas, based on Rita’s “brown arms” and their first names. Additionally, while I was unable to locate the demographics of domestic workers in the U.S., Diana Vellos claims that “Latinas today constitute the largest category of women entering the domestic labor force in the United States. Many of these women are undocumented workers.”

Whatever their heritage, it seems as though Marthas are the only people of color living in Gilead. Most likely, any other non-white Americans were killed or sent to The Colonies as manual laborers.

(More below the fold…)

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

Friday, July 25th, 2008

This is part two in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 06)

By far, the most pervasive theme in The Handmaid’s tale is misogyny and the oppression of women; in fact, female oppression The Republic of Gilead is so ubiquitous so as to suggest that the nation was founded for the sole purpose of reinstating a true theocratic patriarchy. Every facet of society works in concert to control Giliadean women; their subjugation is total.

Women are segregated into groups based on their social functions, as are men. However, unlike the men, women have no chance for upward mobility, only down. A man, for example, may move up in rank from a Guardian to an Angel. There is no such opportunity for women. Wives (and Econowives) may only become Widows; Handmaids, Marthas and Jezebels may be cast off as Unwomen should they fail to fulfill their roles. And Unwomen become laborers or are sent to die a gruesome death in the polluted Colonies. To add insult to injury, a woman’s status is largely determined by her birth, loyalty and reproductive function. In contrast, Gilead does not so much as acknowledge that a man’s reproductive function may be lacking, theoretically or in practice.

Women, with the exception of the Aunts, are not allowed to read or write. Women do not have access to books of any sort, including the Bible. Every household has a Bible, of course, but this is kept under lock and key. Nor do females have writing implements – neither pens nor paper – at their disposal. The no-reading edict is so strictly enforced that the neighborhood markets advertise their wares with graphic signs as opposed to written store names: Lilies of the Field, which sells habits, sports a golden lily on the sign out front; Milk and Honey has “three eggs, a bee, a cow”; and All Flesh “is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains.” When the Handmaids are sent out on errands, they are given small cards (similar to tokens) with which to purchase groceries and other necessities. These, too, are decorated with pictures.

(More below the fold…)