Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0395404258
Publisher: Houghton-Mifflin
Twitter: @MargaretAtwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.

“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.”  (p. 144)

“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)

This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government.  The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.

When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum.  The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament.  But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.

All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences.  Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough.  Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.

The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.

The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts.  The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her.  This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.

In the Red Center, where handmaids are trained, Aunts are charged with indoctrination.  Concepts from the New Testament like “Blessed are the meek,” from the Beatitudes, women covering their hair, and “worthy vessel” are repeated as doctrine.

And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well.  Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.

And what of the misattributions?  If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical.  One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,”  a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.

And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”  Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament.   It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.

The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working.  A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.

The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s.  Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.

Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste.  While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.

There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.”  Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam.  Women are not allowed such a diversion.  Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation.  Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.

All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies.  It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife.  It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.

The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions.  Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers.  Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet.  Let the mob sort it out.

Rigidity leads to rebellion.  Gilead is no different.  A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety.  The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh.  “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.

For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun.  Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history.  That should terrify us all.

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year.  2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief.  Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.

One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished.  I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.

Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy.  Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned.  Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.

When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine.  This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?”  His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”

And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018  happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved.  Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good.  Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.

It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all.  Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected.  Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic.  Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio.  His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works.  My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.

Review: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin
by Mararet Atwood

Title: The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2000
ISBN-13: 9780385720847
Publisher: Anchor Books

[My bones] ache like history:  things long done with.

An elderly lady writes her memoirs, revealing dark family secrets.  Within those secrets is the book The Blind Assassin, a science fiction novel.  Surrounding this novel within a novel is that tale of two lovers who meet surreptitiously and spin yarns.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors.  I often feel like there’s something just skimming below the surface in her stories, but if I look too hard it will skitter away.  And the sheer perversity of this outlandish science fiction tale in the middle of a story of two mystery lovers wrapped in the memoirs of an elderly lady looking back can be fascinating at times.

This was my second read, and found it didn’t hold as well as the first.

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