Book Review: "The Handmaid’s Tale" by Margaret Atwood

When I was a kid, I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on cable television. You know, the one with Natasha Richardson. I thought it was a cool movie. A bit on the strange side, but cool nonetheless.

Flash forward to a couple of Monday’s ago. I’m at our book club and we just finished reading the book. As we go around giving our likes and dislikes of it, I mention that I saw the movie as a kid. The responses were along the lines of GASP! SHOCK! YOUR MOTHER LET YOU WATCH THAT?! This startled me because I really don’t remember the movie being all that bad. There wasn’t any nudity, and the only real lasting image I kept from the movie was when a woman in red went medieval on a guy who supposedly killed a mother and her unborn child. I say ‘supposedly’, because this is in a movie where truth spoken by loudspeaker can never be trusted.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a woman named Offred. It isn’t her real name—that had been taken away from her along with her property, her identity, even her sex. Dressed in all red, she is now a ‘handmaid’ who can only go out in the presence of other handmaidens. She’s not allowed to read or write. She’s not allowed to have any thought of fun or pleasure. Her sole purpose is to produce a child for her Commander and his wife.

What’s scary is that before all this, Offred had a normal life. Granted, she was sleeping with a married man, but she had her own life and the freedom to live the way she wanted. Now, all that exists in painful flashback. It doesn’t matter how her world had gone from normal to this cultish state of existence. All Offred can do is keep her sanity intact as she deals with the mundane of doing nothing except wait for the Commander’s wife to call her to do her duty.

I’ve always been a huge Atwood fan. This book first introduced me to her work and it’s just as good as I remember. Atwood has a wonderful knack for detail, and it helps carry the book along where the main protagonist spends most of her time sitting and waiting. Conversely, I liked how we never get any infodumping on what happened to Offred. We are as baffled as she is as to why all this is happening and how she should deal with it. The flashbacks to the past are bittersweet as well as informative–we can feel Offred’s despair and longing to know what happened to her lover, her best friend, and her only daughter, who was taken from her.

When I was younger, I never saw the feminist angle on this. I’m catching it now: how they other women to keep the handmaidens in line. How she starts doing forbidding things with the Commander, like play Scrabble, but not because he pities her—he’s only using her to satisfy his own needs. This is evident when he sneaks her to Jezebels, sort of a black market nightclub where women are free to dress whatever they like and talk to men. Of course, it becomes apparent that it’s just another form of prison.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that Atwood doesn’t really make it clear that Offred’s a handmaiden because she’s been sleeping with another man’s wife. It’s not until we reach the end of the story, when there’s a "transcript" of an academic talk that discusses the finding of Offred’s story, and it’s there we learn that only those women who were deemed "unmorally fit" were the first wave of handmaidens. Apparently there were other women who were pretty much left alone. Other than those useful bits of information, I felt this transcript was tacked on and provided way too much back history into the story.

I found it interesting that our club read this right after reading "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. Both deal with dystopian near futures that can easily come to pass if we allow it. While I wasn’t as scared as such a thing happening in the Handmaid’s Tale as I was with Little Brother, it does make you think about other places where this is as commonplace as sin. This gets 3-1/2 red dresses out of 5. And try to learn Latin—you’ll never know when you need to translate an obscure message you’re not supposed to read.

Dealing with Fantasy of a Different Sort (or I would reject your reality to substitute my own, except my fantasy is nicer than my reality…)

So last week our dryer broke down. Just stopped working on us. You would think that would sadden me, but it didn’t. For me, No dryer meant that I could actually dry our clothes outside.

Now let me tell you something–I’ve always had this weird desire to do line-drying outside. Call it a idyllic vision from my past: running past flapping bedsheets, hiding in their billowy folds, smelling the sweet fresh scent. Hearing Mrs. Sykes yell at us to get out of her laundry before we yank it down. Yeah, that’s right. It was my babysitter’s line-dry laundry I remember most. I honestly can’t remember if my family did it. Which is odd because I’m sure we did. At least, we had one of those drying racks…didn’t we?

Anyway, line-drying laundry in the sun. I always wanted to do it. When we got a house in Chicago, it was frowned on because it being the suburbs, anything that marred the ‘perfect’ landscape was a no-no. So when we moved to Madison and saw all these houses with laundry flapping in the wind, I knew one day, I’d be doing the same. Except it’s a little difficult to put up a clothesline at a rental apartment?

When our dryer broke down, I wound up putting our much-needed-to-dry washing on our fence, which worked pretty well, provided that I brushed off all the splinters when I collected it. And I had to turn the clothes around so that they would dry evenly. And I had to make sure none of the neighborhoods made off with my underwear (“Hey! Put that down! It’s already stretched enough as it is!”) And just yesterday, I learned the pitfalls of drying laundry when there’s a 40% chance of rain.

I’m learning that my little idyllic fantasy doesn’t come close to matching reality.

I bring this up because there’s a website out there called Where I Write: Fantasy & Science Fiction Authors in their Creative Spaces. Basically, it’s a bunch of F&SF authors in the places where they work.

When I started clicking on pictures, I noticed most of them among nice rooms with lots of books surrounding them, some with art, some with their hobby. And there would be desks and computers. Some even posed with their cats. It all look so nice and idyllic, it actually depressed me a bit. I don’t have a nice looking house. Most of my books are packed away in the garage. My writing desk is currently in my clothes closet, because that’s the best place to put it in our bedroom. And instead of a cat, I have a wild, rambunctious five-year-old who constantly bursts in to demand when dinner will be ready.

It’s not the sort of thing one think of as a writer. Even when I picture myself writing, I see myself at a coffeeshop, settled in an overstuffed chair, my laptop balanced on my lap.

But the appearance of being a writer is vastly different from the actual being a writer. When I write, I don’t see the laundry piled up on my bed or the papers that need to be cleaned off my desk. I see what’s going on in my head. That’s more important than having an office of my own surrounded by books. Having a fancy office doesn’t mean squat if I’m not writing.

And the beauty of being a writer is really, one could write anywhere. Taking a look again at the pictures on the Where I write site, I like the sparseness of Harry Harrison’s writing space. Even better, I love Frederik Pohl’s space—sitting on a couch, writing on a roll up typewriter stand. Now that’s something I can relate to. (What would be even more wonderful was if there were some pictures of writers at the kitchen table with their kids in the background. Or maybe some writers of color. They’re out there…)

And hey, there are times when writing for me does get idyllic. Especially those times I get to take the laptop out to the patio with a tall glass of iced tea. Mmmm…typing in the warm sun…while the birds chirp overhead….

Birds. Birds chirping. Birds flying.

Excuse me. I need to get my laundry in. Then I’m going to place a call to my landlord so we can get this @&*% dryer fixed.

I wasn’t able to make it to WorldCon, but got a little taste of it anyway…

fiction chicken

Thanks to Neil at Clarkesworld for providing a picture of what I can look forward to as a birthday present in 2011…hopefully.

Because surely one can dream of winning a hugo in two years…yeah, that’s the ticket.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? …or Don’t be such a jackass in the comments section…

So ever since RaceFail, I’ve been keeping an eye on what people are buzzing about in the writing world. The latest is an anthology to be published by called The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF. Take a look at the table of contents. Notice anything about them? Now take a look at the comments.

Mind-blowing indeed.

When I was doing the 31 days to Build a Better Blog, one of the things they suggest is to contribute to the comment section in blogs you like. But sometimes, when I look at what brews there, it’s like looking at shark-infested waters. Ain’t no way I’m sticking a toe in there, much less my opinion.

Part of that may be due to my own insecurities. When I was younger, I used to think that no one would value what I had to say. That’s why I wrote stories. Much easier to hide my opinions in them. But another part is that I dislike heated arguments. Especially when they stray from intellectual debate to name calling, F-bombs, slurs, nastiness, etc. It happened in RaceFail. It happened with the whole ROF cover thing (and for a great summary of what happened with that, check out this visual summation here. Hilarious!). It’s almost becoming a cliché: a post appears that makes a bunch of people comment, then an idiot makes a knee-jerk comment, people get up in arms, more commenters defend the slanderer, and soon we got FAIL this and FAIL that.

That’s the ease and the curse of the internet. It’s so easy to type something out and hit enter. You don’t think of consequences. The people you’re writing to are faceless. You don’t see them laugh. You don’t see them flinch. You don’t see the anger, or the hurt on their faces. They’re voiceless until they put their own fingers to the keyboard.

What really gets me in all of this is that, well, aside from those who contribute or read such things,  no one else really knows…or cares. I can go up to my mother, or my co-workers, or people at church and talk about RaceFail, and they’ll give me blank looks, or politely just nod their heads. For all the talk and hype and brouhaha we do in comments and LiveJournal, it’s all so insular.

And the real sad thing is, these are legitimate issues. They deserve to be discussed. For instance, someone asked a question on a reading list I’m on: "Should we, as consumers, make it mandatory that every SF anthology, no matter how small or archaic, include female and POC writers?" That is a very good question. And from what I’ve seen of the discussion so far, it’s been very insightful. So it is possible to express one’s view with intelligence and respect.

I know. There will always be jackasses who will say anything they want, flamers who just want to stir up controversy for the fun of it, and folks who say stuff that they’d wish they slept a night on instead of posting right off.  But I guess the best way to counter stupid comments is to take Mur Lafferty’s advice. Don’t be an ass. Be polite. Don’t say anything that will haunt you later on. If you disagree with someone, say so. But don’t slander. Don’t call names. It’s really not that big of a deal. If the greater world don’t care about it, it shouldn’t get our panties in a wad either.

And frankly, in regards to the all-white guy anthology, I don’t think it ever entered the editor’s head to include any females or POC, because, well, it didn’t really occur to him to do so. He just wanted to get some of his favorite authors together and print some stories of them. It’s what he considers the best science fiction. It reflects his tastes. Me? I looked at the table of contents, and the only author who looked interesting to me was Robert Silverberg, because I like his Valentine series. Everyone else…meh. But see, that reflects my tastes. I like to read stuff with more diversity.

Now…if you excuse me, I’m going to finish reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen so I can dive into my Dark Matter: Reading the Bones anthology. Not only has Link’s book blown my mind, it has smashed it to smithereens, then took all the mushy bits and mashed them together into a likeness of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Surreal, yet impressive.