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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-05-14 17:57
On the Relevance of The Handmaid's Tale -- A Book Published More Than Three Decades Ago!
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

 

 

The Prose

Books set in post-apocalyptic settings usually have an ominous feeling about them. You will start to get that vibe from the very first line. The Handmaid's Tale (THT) wasn't different in that regard.


Consider the following lines and you will see what I mean:

"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
...for the games that were formerly played there
...the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone."

If you were to ask me to name one thing that I liked and disliked about the book, it would be the same:

It horrified me.
 
There is a certain sensuality and ripeness in the prose that on certain occasions became almost obscene to read. Two examples of the latter kind can be found below:
The stains on the mattress. Like dried flower petals. Not recent. Old love...
They touch with their eyes instead and I move my hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway around me.
There were other examples like the ones mentioned above. I think the book was already amazing without them and they weren't really needed. On the other hand, the instances where the succulence of the prose worked for me were beautiful. Look at the greetings that Offred and Oflglen use, for instance:
"Blessed be the fruit..."
"May the Lord open..."
There is something about them that will make you downright uncomfortable. Then, there's a scene where Offred and the Commander are playing Scrabble. To Offred, spelling is a novelty and each word a tasty morsel:
 
http://www.foliosociety.com/images/books/illustrations/lrg/HDT_13500351810.jpg

 

We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance, Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury.
Following are some of my favorite quotes:
 
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Image from here

The Symbolism

 

The Color Red

 

https://midureads.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/a5c48-the-handmaids-tale-s1-teaser.jpg


The book is littered with all kinds of symbols yet one is obvious and is constantly highlighted. The color red can be found in the Handmaids' dress, as well as, other places. For instance,
A Sister dripped in blood.
Hope is rising in me, like sap in a tree. Blood in a wound. We have made an opening,

The Relevance Today

 

There are certain themes that make this book highly relevant even after three decades. Let us look at some of them:

 

Hoarding of Knowledge (Religious and Otherwise)

If the masses are denied knowledge, a society hastens toward its decline. It has long been the tactic of rulers to divert the attention of the public with some distraction. The Ancient Roman emperors did it with gladiator fights. Nazi Germany did it by motivating people to snark on each other. Today's politicians do it with sports' tournaments. In THT, we find Nazi style has been adopted. People are too busy finding out what their neighbors are up to, which prevents them from focusing on what is going on around them.
 
Another way of making the public stay in an uneven footing is by allowing a privileged few access to religious knowledge. Regardless of the religion in question, a clique forms and the members of that esoteric group are the only ones who know what god requires from them. The rest of us are left floundering. Unable to verify the veracity of the claims being made in the name of a deity, we have no choice but to either denounce our faith or join the flock.
 
This Salon article raises some interesting points on the underlying themes in THT. It also discusses the next topic that I have in mind viz...
 

Women's Position in Society

I won't get into the things that will be obvious to most readers, such as women considered assets and being denied reproductive rights etc. It happens in the book, which was published in 1986. The fact that it is still being talked about today makes anything I say redundant. Let us look at some other interesting things that stood out to me:
 

Women's efforts and sacrifices being undermined constantly

Consider the scene where Janine is about to give birth. The instruments and methods being used are outdated. One of them, the birthing stool, can seat two persons, instead of one. To me, it felt like the construction of the stool had two purposes or one depending on how you choose to see it:

 

  1. The Wives being reminded of their inability to produce children by having to sit on the stool during the delivery and be humiliated.
  2. The Handmaids being reminded that all the sacrifice that they went through didn't change anything. Their seat is also lower than the Wives', which pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Getting Used to Something Equated with Things Getting Better

For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round.
This is the sole scrap of comfort that the "Aunt" had to offer to the Handmaids she was training. It reminds me of something I read on Facebook:
Image result for why we need feminism it could be worse
Things don't become right just because they have been going on for years. Telling us that our daughters would accept the situation because they didn't know any better does not cut it anymore. Saying that things could always be worse shouldn't be enough.
 
It isn't just feminism that this thought process can influence. The current events being recorded will soon become part of textbooks. Right now, the people who are alive in this time can differentiate between what happened and what was written down. For the future generations, the textbook version would become history.
 

Racism/Discrimination

Racism is very much a part of our society even today, as is discrimination. While the three main groups of women, Marthas, Handmaids, and Wives weren't from different races, they might as well have been.
 
https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/1/23/1327327126981/Margaret-Atwoods-The-Hand-002.jpg?w=300&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=2e59089f6535ab6c2e173e8913218da0

Provided that this comes to us via Offred, here is a look at what the Wives thought of the Handmaids:
Will Serena Joy talk about me like that, if I do as she wants?Agreed to it right away, really she didn’t care, anything with two legs and a good you-know-what was fine with her. They aren’t squeamish, they don’t have the same feelings we do. And the rest of them leaning forward in their chairs, My dear, all horror and prurience. How could she? Where? When?
You can see the discrimination in the naming of all the servants, Marthas, and the Handmaids being named after the Commander they are currently serving. Offred and Ofglen aren't their real names.
 
One of the throwaway lines from the book mentions that at first, the people thought that Islamic terrorists had taken over the government. I was surprised to find that reference in THT. When I look at the phobia that is still a part of today's society and the misconceptions surrounding my religion, I can see that this isn't something new.
 

Women Subjugating Women

If there is one thing that we need to stop doing, it is demeaning other women. You can see evidence of it in the book and you can see this happen in the real world. The "historical notes given at the end of the book had this to say about the "Aunts":
...the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group.

Our attitude towards each other is largely responsible for how the rest of the world treats us. This was as relevant 30 years ago as it as today!

The excerpt below combines all of it: the gender discrimination, the generational brainwashing, the knowledge hoarding etc.

https://canadianartjunkie.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/balbusso_ceremony.jpg?w=1112
Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before, playing baseball, in jeans and sneakers, riding their bicycles? Reading books, all by themselves? Even though some of them are no more than fourteen – Start them soon is the policy, there’s not a moment to be lost – still they’ll remember. And the ones after them will, for three or four or five years; but after that they won’t. They’ll always have been in white, in groups of girls; they’ll always have been silent.

 

Other Thoughts

Moira

I am at odds while trying to see if I like Moira as a character or not. Offred is one of the wimpiest heroines I have read about, so she wasn't the one who made an impression on me. It was Moira who was intriguing. For instance, look at this exchange between them:
Women can’t hold property any more, she said. It’s a new law. Turned on the TV today?
No, I said.
It’s on there, she said. All over the place. She was not stunned, the way I was. In some strange way she was gleeful, as if this was what she’d been expecting for some time and now she’d been proven right. She even looked more energetic, more determined.
After reading this, I started thinking maybe she was feeling vindicated. Did that mean she hated men? I wasn't so sure about that when I read how she escaped and was grateful to the people, including men, who helped her escape.
 
We see another positive side of hers in the way she deals with a shell-shocked Janine. And finally, we see her giving up and resigning herself to a life of prostitution. Her character changed over time while Offred spends the whole book without evolving in any way.
 

Issues I Spotted

The book wasn't perfect and had some issues, including the fact that the main character doesn't really change over the course of the story.

I also found the ending somewhat a letdown. After investing so much of my emotion into reading what went on with Offred, I think I deserved to know what happened to her.


https://i2.wp.com/www.scrivler.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/handmaidstale.jpg
There was a scene where Japanese tourists encounter Offred and Ofglen. It is made clear that the Japanese do not have the same custom. However, if radiation sickness and infertility are making Offred's people take such desperate measures, why isn't the rest of world doing the same?
 

Allusions and Similarities

When Offred is talking/praying to God, her words are:

I wish You’d answer. I feel so alone. All alone by the telephone. Except I can’t use the telephone. And if I could, who could I call? Oh God. It’s no joke. Oh God oh God. How can I keep on living?
I felt as if the author was alluding to the song, What If God Were One of Us. It is a favorite of mine. You can listen to it here.
 
The Underground Femaleroad reminded me of the people who used to help Black slaves back in the day when slavery was legal.
 
The Salvaging scene that ends with the Handmaids mobbing and mauling a man who supposedly raped a pregnant Handmaid put me in mind of a gruesome incident that took place in my country recently. Since I don't believe in promoting violence, I won't include the link here. I will include the link to a piece that I wrote on the event though. Read it here.
 
THT might have issues but it also highlights the issues of our society beautifully. It might seem like it is talking about an outrageous situation when in fact, it is only holding up a mirror for us.  It isn't the story of one nation's nightmare. It is, "While we weren’t looking, the book became our reality."
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-03-17 18:59
So, I Finally Read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor and Here's What I Thought...
Binti - Nnedi Okorafor

 

The cover was perfect.

On a related note, look at what the author had to say about the whitewashing of her covers.

 

I loved how the acknowledgments described UAE as "futuristic ancient".

It is such a perfect description because you get this old feel when you visit the place and then there are those skyscrapers that add a futuristic shade to things. Mostly unrelated but reminded me of how a Pakistani artist imagined our country would like in SF mode! Check it out:

 

 

 

 

 

See more of his art here. Anyway, back to the review:

 

This is how YAs should go!

I mean there's this teenager who is running away from home, readying herself to face all kinds of racism, just so she can attend a university. I loved that.

 

Some thoughts were expressed so beautifully...

 

 

 

 

I might have been reading too much into it but I could see some parallels.

While talking about cooking fish, Binti mentioned:

 

they lulled the fish into a sleep that the fish never woke from

It reminded me of two things:

a) The Himba are an animist people, which is why they would be gentle towards any organisms they consumed.

b) How as Muslims we have rules upon rules that minimize the pain of an animal prior to being slaughtered for food.

 

 

I loved how Binti's love and respect for her family would shine through her thoughts. For instance, look at this quote:

 

Would my family even comprehend it all when I explained it to them?

 

And then, she followed it with another thought that I wasn't expecting. She didn't think they weren't smart enough to understand why she did what she did. Instead, she said:

 

Or would they just fixate on the fact that I'd almost died...

 

I kept imagining the Meduse as the love-child of jellyfishes and Cthulhu though I dunno why! While researching that unholy union, I came across this instead:

 

 

To summarize, YA done well, in terms of strong, sensible female lead, making it a must-read for all YA lovers out there.

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review 2017-03-17 01:17
Version Control, by Dexter Palmer
Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.

 

Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.

 

Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.

 

The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.

 

Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?

 

Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

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review 2017-01-23 18:30
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett
Rush Oh! - Shirley Barrett

This is the second novel in a row I've read (after Enchanted Islands) that's written as a sort of memoir from the perspective of an older person looking back. I'm not overly fond of traditional memoirs and wonder if this may in part account for my less than enthusiastic reaction upon finishing.

 

What this book does have going for it is a charming, somewhat unreliable narrator. Her asides and style as a storyteller often delighted and amused me. Mary is a naive girl at the start, and as an adult seems not much wiser. As a reader you may arch your brow at the gaps in her knowledge or what lies beneath her personality quirks (e.g. as a woman in her 50s at the end, she has developed a kind of fetish for reverends, owing to her first love, explored throughout the book). Mary is so plucky (and often critical of others) that I assumed she was still a child when the story began (in fact, she's a young lady already).

 

Returning to what I'm describing as memoir-ish--and an author's note explains that Mary's father was a real person, if not the whole family--there's only so much narrative thrust to the story. The plot advances in short chapters interspersed with others that give some background to the characters and to whaling. Essentially, Mary relays an account of a particular whaling season in Australia, most significant for her because she meets her first (and only romantic) love.

 

The novel was pleasant enough to read, but I needed something more and was also left confused by the end. Why end on that moment?

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review 2016-12-01 21:59
Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff
Lovecraft Country: A Novel - Matt Ruff

Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn't quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.

 

Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I've seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters' perspectives than others and feel as if you don't get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.

 

Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.

 

(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I've kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.

 

Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.

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