Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

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Reactions: Macbeth

Y’all know me.  There’s still so much that I haven’t read, despite the passing years and my unending reading list.  I’d never read Macbeth before this week, and still haven’t seen it performed.

There are probably others in this same boat, and yet I figure that it’s a familiar enough play that what follows is a casual assemblage of thoughts rather than a proper summary or review.

To start with: I don’t feel guilty for having missed MacScottishplay until now, but I do feel mildly regretful.  How many allusions to this have I missed?  How many did I catch, but not understand as fully as I might have?  I recall a story that quoted “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” verbatim, and based a horrible, torturous curse on a blade which is invisible to all but the victim.  If I could find that story again, I might find that scene to be richer than before.  I’ve also let references to Banquo’s ghost slip by, because who’s Banquo, and what’s his ghost up to?

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But there are certain references that get explained somewhere or other – English classes,playgoers’ conversation, Startled By His Furry Shorts, etc.: witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king; prophecies get fulfilled one way or another; Lady Macbeth becomes a compulsive hand-washer; someone named Macduff gets addressed; and, if you read enough about Tolkien, apparently some copouts happen concerning the movement of Birnam Wood and the nature of vaginal childbirth vs. c-sections.  The former inspires the Ents, the latter Eowyn’s greatest moment.

Here are some things I missed until I’d read the text for myself:

– There was a moment where Macbeth thought “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir.”  ‘If fate wants me to be king, maybe it’ll happen without me having to, you know, kill anyone.’  It’d make for a quieter play, presumably, but also a less direct plot.  I’m checking Ao3 to see if that fanfic’s been written yet.

– Despite the one moment of “Hmm, murder might not be necessary,” Macbeth really gets down to his bloody business quite swiftly.  I didn’t expect him to be Hamlet, but I also didn’t expect him to stab three people before the second act ends, hire a couple murderers to stab two more people in the third act, somehow get a third murderer involved (possibly to ensure the silence of the first two murderers, which means it’s turning into one of Doze Plans Vere You Lose You Hat) thereafter, and have all of Scotland at war by the end.  

– I read a few pages of lit crit, analyzing whether Macbeth is guiltless (or…less culpable, anyway) because his wife egged him on; these conclude that she didn’t take up the knife herself because her nerve failed her, and the fact that Macbeth did, in fact, stab a bunch of people indicates that it is not solely his wife’s ambition, but also his own, that drives him.  

– On account of this, it is the witches who say “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” of Macbeth.  I had never realized that the witches say this line, for some reason, nor had I realized that in so doing, they are referring to Macbeth: a man so full of evil that he is no longer a man, and is above all else a wicked Unman.

– Macbeth’s ambition and how it plays out strikes me as somehow naive.  Okay, you’ve been hailed as king-to-be…but…is that throne what you really want, if you can’t have it without killing your kinsman and your friends in a complete inversion of every rule of hospitality?  Do you really want this power if everyone hates both how you acquired it and how you wield it?  One commentary on “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” submits that Macbeth recognizes how much shorter and unhappier his wife’s life became because of their actions.  Idjit.

– Relatedly, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” is a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’ve killed so many people to BE thus.  There is nowhere to fly from death even when you aren’t a murderous villain, but, you know.  Being a murderous villain doesn’t really protect you from the people who frown on that sort of thing.  Killing a castle full of civilians just gives your enemies more motivation for revenge!

– Also seemingly foolish: to rely on “Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” without turning the verbiage inside and out.  I suppose we 21st-century readers have the benefit of centuries of hindsight/textual analysis here, but…I dunno, it’s not like they defined their terms for you.  “None of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,” but no one said you couldn’t get attacked by an animal, or a virus, or a natural disaster – leaving aside the verb “born” and how thin those hairs can be split.  Or, where the Wood is concerned…the 2015 film apparently involves Macduff burning the wood, and the ash thereof floats on the wind to the castle and retains its role as screening the soldiers’ numbers.  Or perhaps it could be made into paper.  If you’re going to be guilt-wracked and paranoid, then by golly be thorough about it.

In sum: Macbeth is a short but crazy ride, chock full of memorable lines and well worth the read.  May it take you less time to get around to it than it took me, and may you share all your own thoughts and reactions to it below!

Review: Luci Shaw

Every once in awhile, I find a new author (of prose or poetry, whichever) and decide to get as many of his or her books as possible, then read them in a great flurry to form a very clear concept of that writer’s style.  

It usually backfires, because I put off even the activities I enjoy, and fail to read them until they’re all due back at the library.  My tsundoku works against me and I end up reading, like, 2 books of a potential dozen.  

But that fate has been averted, more or less, with Luci Shaw.  I discovered her in trying to find poems about Petoskey stones (which, as you may recall, I adore hunting on the Lake Michigan shoreline).

shaw-petoskeystoneTurning up Polishing the Petoskey Stone: what a boon!  There’s only one poem about Petoskeys in it, but the book’s introduction explains why that title was chosen.  Shaw’s friend showed her how the fossils could be buffed on anything – one’s blue jeans, the arm of a chair, the fabric of a car door interior.  After a road trip’s-worth of rubbing at a stone, the resulting sheen made Luci consider God, polishing each one of us individually; our particular sorrows, joys, dull moments, energetic evenings, manic Mondays are all part of the process of making us shine forth.

Polishing the Petoskey Stone astonished me with its wisdom and imagery.  Every other poem, if not every single one, provided illumination of God’s work through a wealth of natural pictures: frogs, shells, the view from an airplane window, circles, blood.  So much of it provided new and weighty illustrations about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

I eventually recognized that the sub-headings within were not simply section titles but the titles of earlier collections.  Polishing the Petoskey Stone contains poems originally published in Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, The Sighting, and Postcard from the Shore.  Not all of them, but about two-thirds.  

Likewise, a handful from The Secret Trees turn up in The Green Earth and Water Lines; accompanied-by-angelswhole sections of Water Lines in Water My Soul; various selections from this and that book in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation.  Where there is any overlap of theme, there will be an overlap of poems. 

And yet, the introductions to each book, the occasional endnotes, the different structure, and the fact that good poetry is worth re-reading and rumination all add up to a complete lack of regret for getting them all out.  

I tried to read in order, more or less, but the strictures of time and the MelCat system mean that I read certain later books earlier on.  Harvesting the Fog is a later book – published in 2010, not the 70’s or the early aughts.  I didn’t care for it half as much, as it seemed more concerned with simple description than with embodying the intangible.  

I still have six books of hers to read, and 4 more to track down and read thereafter, but I doubt they’ll change my judgment of Shaw: carefully observant, fresh and evocative, somewhat familiar in subject and tone to those fond of CS Lewis (while different in form).  I commend her to you all as a poet who will refresh your soul.

Tsundoku

My beloved Mark Forsyth noted last January that he has two tsundoku (“a pile of books you’ve bought and haven’t got round to reading yet”).

I have something like that.

First, I have The Pile of Books I’ve Read, But Want to Review Before Returning to the Library:

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Then, the Pile of Shavian Poetry (thankfully Luci’s, not George Bernard’s):

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Then, the Pile of Apple Books – i.e., the books I took one bite of, and then put down to take a bite of something else.  If I’m not careful I shall have to make a bucket of applesauce.  So to speak.

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All that said, since I took these pictures, I’ve managed to remove a couple books from each pile.  Hurrah!

What’s in your tsundoku?

Review: Silverlock

A couple of friends recommended this book to me, so I was excited to pick it up and start it.  It’s a fun blend of different classical stories, settings, and characters.  By the end, I was glad to have read it; there were some rough bits in between.  

A. Clarence Shandon, the eponymous Silverlock (so called for the streak of white in his hair), is clearly Eustace Clarence Scrubb all grown up.  Unfortunately, traveling through the Commonwealth of Letters does not improve him as much as being dragoned by greed and un-dragoned by Aslan.

…possibly I am biased by the fact that he narrates.  This being so, one sees all too far into his head.  He is often driven by the basest motivation, including a bit of rather misogynistic skirt-chasing, and that’s distressingly clear throughout.  The remove of a third-person narrator might have helped.  As it stands, I didn’t really have the chance to develop much sympathy for him before his vices made me dislike him.  

The enjoyable part is the land where he ends up.  In the Commonwealth, he meets with such classical figures as Circe, Little John, Beowulf, Job, Pangloss, and some Whynnyms; he travels from the shore, to Sherwood Forest, down Watling Street, by the chapel of the Green Knight, and past Gitche Gumee (! my Michigan heart delighted in that).

So as a pastiche, it’s fairly good.  Shandon is helped along by Golias, a composite of every single well-traveled bard out there: first, to survive; second, to help an asinine fellow get his girl back; third, to start off for the spring of all inspiration (a path that goes through Hell, so Shandon’s lucky Golias had his back).

(Golias, being a bard, sings a lot of songs.  These are rather fun, except that I’m terrible at making up tunes as I read, so they weren’t quite as fun for me as they could have been.  However!  At one particular point when Golias saves Shandon’s butt, I’m preeeetty sure the song he sings scans about the same as one of Tom Bombadil’s favorites.  It was an apt spot for it.)

Each scene of the picaresque was assembled nicely, and altogether it fit cunningly.  But Shandon’s journeys only ever serve to make him glad to be alive for himself.  He does not turn outward, glad to be of service to others.  When the story finishes, he’s been changed, possibly even grown a bit…but so far as I can tell, he remains a man-shaped dragon.  

Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Variation on a Theme

“I’m back.”

“Oh, good.  …good Lord.”

“What?”

“Nothing, just – I’m sorry, how many bags of books do you have there?  I thought you said you were going off to read, not raid a bookstore.”

“It wasn’t a bookstore.  It was the library.”

And there wasn't a book sale. I didn't even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

And there wasn’t a book sale. I didn’t even get that many new requests. This was just me cleaning out my car.

“Oh.  I’d thought maybe a coffee shop…?”

“No, coffee shops are full of people buying coffee and chatting over their tea and – and then there’s the pressure to earn your seat by buying more coffee, which I don’t need.  Bookstores have no BYOB policy and in fact discourage bringing your own book….whereas the library has a fine parking lot, and a quiet table inside.”

“Sorry – what, exactly, does the parking lot have to do with anything?”

“Oh!  Well, on a fine evening like this, you can read in your car.  More airflow than indoors, and there was at least an hour of light.  And then inside for another hour and change.  I almost finished off that volume of Milosz, finally.”

“Seems a shame to read so fast instead of lingering over the words.  You can’t get as much out of it.”

Quirk of a bemused eyebrow.  “Is that how you always read?  Lingeringly?”

“Well, yeah.  More or less, depending on the book.”

“Tell me: do you always sip daintily at every glass of water?”  A blank look in response.  “Do you always, always let your beer or wine set for five whole seconds on your tongue before you swallow it?”  Sheepish shifting of feet, eyes drifting to the floor.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought.  Sure, maybe I don’t remember as much of it as you do, or as much as I’d like to recall – but good God, man, sometimes it’s sweltering out and you’re sweating too hard to do anything but gulp.  Sometimes you’re too caught up in conversation to attend so studiously to your beverage.  And that’s all for the best, honestly – drinks go with your food and conversation, not the other way ’round.”

“But contemplating words makes a good deal more sense than contemplating wine.”

“Not all words.  And, for that matter, not all wines, either.”

The Ships – A Prose Poem by CP Cavafy

From Imagination to the Blank Page.  A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous.  At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it.

The first injury derives from the highly fragile nature of the merchandise that the ships transport. In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles, and despite all the care in the world, many break on the way, and many break when unloaded on the shore. Moreover, any such injury is irreversible, because it is out of the question for the ship to turn back and take delivery of things equal in quality. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold them. In the marketplaces of Imagination, the shops are large and luxurious but not long-lasting. Their transactions are short-lived, they dispose of their merchandise quickly and immediately liquidate. It is very rare for a returning ship to find the same exporters with the same goods.

Another injury derives from the capacity of the ships. They leave the harbors of the opulent continents fully loaded, and then, when they reach the open sea, they are forced to throw out a part of the load in order to save the whole. Thus, almost no ship manages to carry intact as many treasures as it took on. The discarded goods are of course those of the least value, but it happens sometimes that the sailors, in their great haste, make mistakes and throw precious things overboard.

And upon reaching the white paper port, additional sacrifices are necessary. The customs officials arrive and inspect a product and consider whether they should allow it to be unloaded; some other product is not permitted ashore; and some goods they admit only in small quantities. A country has its laws. Not all merchandise has free entry, and contraband is strictly forbidden. The importation of wine is restricted, because the continents from which the ships come produce wines and spirits from grapes that grow and mature in more generous temperatures. The customs officials do not want these alcoholic products in the least. They are highly intoxicating. They are not appropriate for all palates. Besides, there is a local company that has the monopoly in wine. It produces a beverage that has the color of wine and the taste of water, and this you can drink the day long without being affected at all. It is an old company. It is held in great esteem, and its stock is always overpriced.

Still, let us be pleased when the ships enter the harbor, even with all these sacrifices. Because, after all, with vigilance and great care, the number of broken or discarded goods can be reduced during the course of the voyage. Also, the laws of the country and the customs regulations, though oppressive in large measure, are not entirely prohibitive, and a good part of the cargo gets unloaded. Furthermore, the customs officials are not infallible: some of the merchandise gets through in mislabeled boxes that say one thing on the outside and contain something else; and, after all, some choice wines are imported for select symposia.

Something else is sad, very sad. That is when certain huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts, with great white and red flags unfurled, full of treasures, ships that do not even approach the harbor either because all of their cargo is forbidden or because the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. So they continue on their way. A favorable wind fills their silk sails, the sun burnishes the glory of their golden prows, and they sail out of sight calmly, majestically, distancing themselves forever from us and our cramped harbor.

Fortunately, these ships are very scarce. During our lifetime we see two or three of them at most. And we forget them quickly. Equal to the radiance of the vision is the swiftness of its passing. And after a few years have gone by, if—as we sit passively gazing at the light or listening to the silence—if someday certain inspiring verses return by chance to our mind’s hearing, we do not recognize them at first and we torment our memory trying to recollect where we heard them before. With great effort the old remembrance is awakened, and we recall that those verses are from the song chanted by the sailors, handsome as the heroes of the Iliad, when the great, the exquisite ships would go by on their way—who knows where.