The Handmaid’s Tale and Other Reasons Why History Repeats Itself

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I’m not sure how this happened, but I finally read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale this week.  Why it took me over seven years to get to it, I have no idea and am thoroughly kicking myself now for have letting it happen.

Atwood’s novel chronicles a woman, Offred,  living in a dystopic future where women have next to no rights and are used like chattel by older couples to have children.  It is the early days of the society, and  Offred (whose real name is never given as she goes by her Commander’s name) can remember the days before the U.S. government was hostilely overthrown by what appear to be backwater conservatives who don’t care for Jews and are looking to preserve the white race.

The story runs the contrast and complexities of the lives of women before and after the fundamentalist takeover.  There is an internal feminist struggle of what the boundaries are between women and how they see themselves in relation to each other.  Offred jokes that this is their female society and the irony of women working against each other like tools for men isn’t lost on her.  In the days before, Offred was the second wife of her husband, which was the excuse used to strip them apart.   However a pertinent detail was that Offred and her husband were having an affair when he was married, and her friend Moira pointed out that she had stolen another woman’s husband.

Later, at the training facilities where women are to become chattel for child-bearing, they are instructed by the Aunts, older infertile women who brainwash and reign them in.  Again it is ironic that it is women acting against other women.  This becomes more evident when the Wives are resentful of the Handmaids ability to have children.  Women will so easily sell each other out for status among men would best sum this book up.   If one ever read Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Women, it would be easy to draw the parallel that women constantly have this need to one up each other in front of men in order to earn status, and that they cannot establish their own system of worth on their own.

Even though the novel was published well over twenty years ago, a large number of the issues retain their relevancy to the gender divide and the complex problem of being a “feminist.”  What I’ve seen in growing numbers of professional women sticking the disclaimer on themselves that they are “not feminist” in a desperate bid to seem… I don’t know, not a crazy die-hard feminazi?  I really think this plays into what Atwood displays about women and feminism in the twentieth century, it’s the idea that feminism, female assertion, is a threat that other females try to put down just as much as men do, if not to a greater extent in order to assert their status.  Contradictory and hypocritical?  Highly.  But it’s not an issue that feminists and anti-feminist women across the board seem to want to address.

All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace

Talyn: A Novel of Korre by Holly Lisle

It had been awhile since I read a high fantasy novel when I came across this one in the Midtown Library.  No, it’s not one of those trashy romance fantasy novels, the material in there is not that graphic either so I’m guessing the cover is to sensationalize it.  The cover of the edition I had was mostly black and doesn’t look like much.

Lisle creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, ripe with magic hierarchy and complex politics and religious undertones, I found it to be quite a worthwhile read.  The lead character Talyn is a Shielder who can wield magic and see into ‘the View’ which is sort of like a different plain of knowledge that only a few can go into.  It’s the primary battleground for an ages old feud between Talyn’s insular, homogeneous country and it’s republican ethnically hodgepodge neighbor.  The war, and consequently an entire war industry and way of life, ceases when foreigners bring peace to the region through alliances and placing their own soldiers on outposts.

The story is a multi-layered tale that begs the large philosophical question of, ‘Is everything about war bad?’ and more over next to nothing is black and white for the characters.  They constantly struggle with the weight of their actions and are conflicted with the paradox of wanting to win the war, yet still living as though they have purpose outside of it.  The history of the war and anecdotes inserted about it truly takes things to a new level.  The characters are sharp, genuinely complex and humanly real.

My criticism of the book is that the prose becomes dry and the plot lags halfway through.  The characters get caught in a sort of limbo as they try to rid their lands of the foreign influence.  Another sticking point for me is that the narrative bounces between first person and third person, which I’ve come to regard as a pet peeve if an author cannot stick to a particular style but I tried to put that aside.  The latter portion of the novel dragged and the end felt too rushed.

Still, it was a great read and I recommend it if you’re looking for how to write a very good fantasy world and multi-dimensional characters.

The Art of Being a Loser

I know I’m a bit late in posting this, but author J.D. Salinger passed away on January 27, 2010 which has led to the celebrity he avoided in life consuming his death.

A slew of articles were done on one of the most recognized American authors in history, but one in particular left me scratching my head. Newsweek decided to let someone who was not a fan of Salinger write an article about his death entitled J.D. Salinger Outlived His Legend. I usually like contrasting viewpoints on a person, and using only fans to comment on an author isn’t as circumspect. It’s like only letting Nazis comment on Hitler’s death. I’m not a fan of Hitler nor Salinger (to a far far lesser extent than the former) so I was curious to see what Malcolm Jones had to say.

The article was wholly obnoxious based on this opening alone, “Holden Caulfield was certainly no more interesting than I was, and back then (oh, heck, even now), I wanted the people in the books I read to be a lot more interesting than me. But there was almost nothing in that book for me to connect with. I didn’t have a sister. I didn’t go to prep school. I had no idea what taking the train into New York meant. And Holden himself seemed like sort of a drip.” J.D. Salinger was dismissed because Holden had a sister and the author didn’t? Really? This is coming from a journalist on a national publication?

I should point out that I grew up in New York City at the turn of the millennium and took the train to public school every morning (I read The Catcher in the Rye on the ride over), came from an immigrant family, don’t have a sister, oh and for good measure, I’m female. Based on that, I should hate the book because Holden isn’t me. This also eliminates from my reading list about 99.99% of the English literary canon from my good graces – how did I manage a degree in that subject that so obviously wasn’t about me? God forbid Jones does a commentary on Star Wars – it’s pointless and boring because unlike Luke, he doesn’t have a sister, let alone lived on Tatooine.

Any literary critic worth their ink (or I guess these days, typeface) knows that while we might not like a certain book, that does not mean their contribution to the literary canon ought to be discredited (unless you’re teaching a course in English lit and choose not to put certain books on your syllabus). Jones writes from the perspective of his 13 year old self back in the mid-60s, not the journalist in his late 50s. Those reasons for dismissal aren’t valid at that age either.

I was 14 years old when I had to read The Catcher in the Rye for English class, and the vast majority of us couldn’t stand the book. To this day, I really don’t know any teenager that does. I’ll admit that we pecked out Holden for being the rich New York elite that we felt looked down on us, but that was hardly the reason I actually disliked him. As one kid put it, “Holden Caulfield is messed up in the head.” While the teacher kept badgering us that we should feel kinship with an angst-ridden teen from New York, Holden was not the kid we wanted to be. He was pathetic, a failure and constantly pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Our generation gap was vast and all we could think was ‘You’re rich, suck it up.  I know plenty of people with worse lives that were broke…  I could have pulled that off with my hands tied behind my back…  I think you’re screwed up because you just want to be…’

Looking back on it, it was one of those teen novels not really meant for teens, but nostalgic pieces written several years after the author’s youth. Salinger wrote Holden Caulfield’s story in the 1940s, which put him in his 30s at the time. He wrote of a nostalgia for innocence that many teens don’t experience nor understand until their 20s (or at least that was my case). I think that high school students shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye until their junior or senior year in order to get the full effect, because at 13 and 14, they’ve only started acclimating themselves to being “teenagers,” so how can they feel the loss of their youth when they haven’t experienced it? That’s what Salinger wrote about so compellingly. Sure the story wasn’t to my tastes, and there are many who disavow it’s literary merit, but it is the grandfather of all teen angst stories.

Without The Catcher in the Rye, we wouldn’t have had The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dawson’s Creek, SuperBad (or pretty much Judd Apatow’s entire career) or many of the other teen films and TV shows and books about that teenager whose family doesn’t get him and he struggles to find his way in the world. Anyone worth their literary pedigree could tell you that sure Holden Caulfield was lame and a loser, but he paved the way for loser, angst-ridden teens everywhere to get their stories told.

Holden Caulfield made being a loser into an art form.

A Smart Girl’s Avon Romance

Ransom My Heart by Mia Thermopolis/Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot, writer of The Princess Diaries Series, The Mediator Series, 1-800-WHERE-R-U series, All-American Girl Series, along with other chick-lit classics, returns to her historical romance roots in her standalone novel Ransom My Heart. The author of the book is listed as The Princess Diaries narrator, Mia Thermopolis and the proceeds are going to Greenpeace.

I have been a fan of Meg Cabot since my high school days — I was a big fan of The Mediator Series which she originally wrote under the name Jenny Carroll. The show Medium takes a lot of cues from The Mediator and 1-800-WHERE-R-U became the Liftime TV series Missing. The Princess Diaries is undoubtedly one of my favorite series, and I was excited to read Mia’s novel.

Meg’s characters usually have such heart and charm and cheekiness, it’s terribly easy to fall for them. However, Finnula isn’t quite as endearing a heroine as Mia or Sam or Suze. Finnula came off as the cliche tomboy turned damsel; her antics with her bow and arrow were more cartoonish than they should have been. While readers knew what Finnula did, it was difficult to figure out what was going on in her head except when she was about to jump Hugo’s bones. Finnula did have a lot of Robin Hood/goddess of the hunt Artemis-Diana cues, which were clever if you know your Greek myths.

For her knight Hugo, Meg decided to make him closer to reality than the idealized archetype of a returning Crusade soldier. He’s far from the ideal lover – promiscuous, flawed, manipulative, morally ambiguous. I also didn’t cringe when she shifted to his perspective, it didn’t sound too feminine, which a lot of writers tend to do. Kudos to Meg for doing her homework so thoroughly on this historical period. She also writes the love scenes quite well — vivid but not too-detailed. I hadn’t expected an adult novel to be tied to The Princess Diaries, nor read her adult books so I was pleasantly surprised that she wrote love scenes… Honestly, it didn’t bother me but maybe it wasn’t the best idea to tie something that sexually graphic to a teen series that was not graphic or gave the implication that it would be.

In a cliche story like this, there needed to be much more character development overall and a tighter story plot. I felt like it was mostly bouts of lust between the two lovers, rather than a multi-faceted relationship. While all the characters had very interesting back-stories, their current ones lacked any luster. Another thing that bothered me was that characters were inconsistent, which probably stems from the lack of development. Then the epilogue seemed out of place, and it could have just ended with the last chapter.

This was not Meg Cabot’s best work. I didn’t even feel like Mia would write something like this based on her character, this sounds more like it’s Tina’s forte. While easily fun for a light read (or to maintain your status of reading all things Mia), I’d say it’s easily what it is — a very typical Avon romance novel. I was expecting a bit more from the author, but some days you win some, other days you lose some. I’d say that my book choices are progressively getting better, so I’ll count this as a win.

Image Credit to: Avon Romance Blog

When Fairytales Go to Liberal Arts College

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Ugh, one would think I had the worst taste in books based on what I’ve been posting as my reading material… then again, is it invalidated by the fact that I know that it’s bad after reading it?

I skipped off to the library to find a new foray into the fantasy realm and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin caught my eye. I love fairy tale retellings and couldn’t help picking it up, especially after seeing that it was a reprint with a special introduction for the reprint. Seems glamorous, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not.

I knew it was a modern retelling of the Scottish ballad when I walked into it. I knew it was about college students in the 1970s that was originally published in 1991.  (I love Something Wicked This Way Comes and have a deep nostalgia for the pre-tech days of storytelling) . What I didn’t know what that it was an English Lit GRE review guide masquerading as a teen fantasy novel.

As someone who survived the AP exams in both English Language & Composition and English Literature & Composition in high school, then masochistically went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in English Lit, even I was beating my head against the wall for all the excessive literary inside jokes and quotes from Keats (and I adore Keats). There was also an extremely excessive need to list colleges as well — Dartmouth, Grinnell, Harvard, Colgate, University of Pennsylvania, ad nauseum.

It was like the author found a box of her old college essays and decided to write a story about them ten years later. The characters sound more like English PhD students and several professors while lecturing for class, let alone undergraduate students simply hanging out during their freshman year. I have yet to meet anyone who can quote entire Romantic poems verbatim and do it roundrobin with several other folks for fun. Also, what straight twenty-something year old guy in college is willing to give up good sex because the girl he’s dating doesn’t read for leisure?

To add insult to injury, the characters were completely stale and unbelievable (if you couldn’t guess from my previous examples). It was hard to connect to Janet, who is supposed to be experiencing the emotions of moving out of her parents’ home, having her first boyfriend (and sex), and choosing her major. As someone who passed through all of those experiences fairly recently, I was disappointed that all of these situations were handled so poorly. Janet acts more like a weatherworn thirty year old than the naive eighteen year old she’s supposed to be. Instead, Dean takes time to run through a hodgepodge literary survey of Shakespeare performance, the Classics, and the Romantics.

While I understood most of the references (even Dean points out, it’s impossible for English students to have the same set of canon behind them yet continues to assault the reader with at least two per page), it becomes extremely tiring after a while. For example, “The stage was tiny, but Robin had pronounced it large enough for a sword fight, though, he said, you would not wish to try to produce something like Henry V on it, or anything whatsoever by Shaw,” (p. 250) requires the reader to know that Henry V is about war (I got lucky and saw Ethan Hawke while he was performing it at Lincoln Center) and that there are lots of long, extended sword fights throughout. The reader would also have to know that “Shaw” is a reference to “George Bernard Shaw” who enjoyed the swash-buckling defense of a woman’s honor (I think?). Again I have a degree in this and it wears me out, what teenager would know this off the top of her head? I’m all for reading ahead of your level, but this is all gibberish if you don’t know what they’re talking about. Even then it’s gibberish.

Imagine over 450 pages of this. No real action or adventure or real magical mischief. No true insight on the trials of attending college for the first time and growing up that are requisite for the Young Adult genre. There is too much distance from Janet to care about her and she doesn’t really do much of anything worth mentioning and there’s no emotional investment in any of the overly self-absorbed characters. Heck, the romantic portion is done so badly, I think a fourteen year old girl could have written something more genuine.

It isn’t until the last 40 pages that the story comes back and gets dropped on the reader. After over 300 pages of freshman year, the story breezes through to the fall of Janet’s senior year. Little of the story links up, the attempt at social commentary on birth control, abortion and Roe v. Wade that falls absolutely flat by just having her parents simply tell her that they’ll take care of a baby born out of wedlock and she doesn’t have to kill herself. Really? She doesn’t feel worry or shame or guilt (she got knocked up from what was basically a one-night stand with her roommate’s ex/her ex’s roommate). None of it works out to be clever or insightful about anything. It just happens.

I get that it’s supposed to be a college story, but does it have to read like the essay portions of an English anthology for college students?

Well, if nothing else, now you too can pass the English Lit GRE exam after looking up all the references in this book, get a PhD in English Literature, and still not figure out how this fits into the genre of “young adult fantasy.”

(The only reason I gave this book 3 stars instead of 2 stars was because I liked how the story cleverly used The Revenger’s Tragedy and Keats.)