GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale

the-handmaids-tale-coverThis month on the GNBC we are featuring Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’m a little late responding to this one, but you can check out the original discussion post here.

I actually went and bought this one in paperback because I thought this might be the kind of book I’d want to own.  It’s been back in the public consciousness recently because of the critically acclaimed Hulu adaptation, plus the fact that it’s been a number one seller on Amazon–unusual for a book first published in the 80s.

There is so much to unpack with this book; I can see why it’s frequently taught in universities and even high schools.  But quite frankly, I’m glad it didn’t come to me until now; I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much.

This was a difficult book for me to read, and I mean that in several different ways.

First of all, it is slow.  The book is not plot-driven.  Pretty much nothing really happens until the midpoint of the book, just Offred going through daily life and thinking.  Thinking about her lost daughter, about her indoctrination into the Handmaids, about the past, about her room, about suicide.  Thinking is enough; it paints a marvelous picture of Offred’s world.  But I didn’t find it “gripping” in the way of other novels, which is one reason I never made it past the first few chapters when I tried to read it over ten years ago.

Second, Offred’s story is presented in first person, present tense (her remembrances of the past are in past tense).  This is currently all the rage in YA novels, and I am not a fan.  Luckily, Atwood is a good writer, and the narrative style is entirely purposeful.  From chapter seven:

It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along….But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.  You don’t tell a story only to yourself.  There’s always someone else.

And the end of the story reveals that Offred has recorded her story on audio tapes which were later recovered and pieced back together.  This explains why the narrative jumps around so much, but it doesn’t change the fact that it can be confusing.  Sometimes I wouldn’t immediately understand what day it was or where in the flow of time the words I was reading took place.

I also had a hard time picturing the locations in the story as being overlaid on the localities in the modern day Boston area.  Maybe if I’d been to Boston for more than a few hours it would have been easier, but I could only see the community as something new, secluded in an unrecognizable place.  Making the connection between pre-Gilead and post-Gilead was hard to me.

But the most fundamental reason that this book was hard to read was the subject matter; it is disturbing.  And even now I am having a hard time writing about why it was so particularly disturbing to me now.  This book affected me like it wouldn’t have before because I am five months pregnant.  Everything that Offred goes through, her blissful existence in her past life with her husband and young daughter, her anguish at that being taken away, her life being stripped to an equivalence with her mere reproductive capabilities, her shifts between guilt, despair, and hope, hope of a new pregnancy, of a new child that will also not be hers–all of her thoughts and feelings felt deeply personal to me.

I believe in my empathetic nature, that the book would have affected me before, but now, as I start a family with my husband, I think I truly understand the stakes, how much there is to lose.  I was reading this book with a love note from my husband tucked between the pages as a bookmark.  Can you think of anything more ironic than that?  I’d like to pretend that it wasn’t an accident, but an act of defiance.

I thought it was interesting how Offred and Ofglen are presented as foils for each other.  Of the two, Ofglen is the revolutionary, the Katniss Everdeen of Gilead.  But she is not our main character.  We are following Offred instead, who is not a revolutionary.  In fact, she feels, well, almost satisfied, once her life is bearable.  It is enough for her, and she won’t risk it for the sake of others.  She stops being interested in the machinations of Ofglen’s secret group.  But for Ofglen, there is no “satisfied,” at least maybe until Gilead is done away with.  She is an amazing woman, but I think I am more like Offred.  I understood her perfectly.

I liked how the ending is ambiguous; we don’t know where Offred is being lead, and by whom.  I think it fit very well with the rest of the book, and I’ve always liked these kinds of endings (The Giver, Inception)–but I know some people hate them.  I remember people arguing in the sixth grade about whether Jonas lived in freedom or died at the end of The Giver!  The Historical Notes tagged on to the end provide a lot of interesting context to the story, but the tonal shift is so jarring; I am undecided whether the book is better with or without them.

Image result for the handmaid's tale

As I was reading some articles about the Hulu adaptation (which I haven’t seen; I don’t have Hulu), I came across one that mentioned that Offred is raped repeated by her Commander.  Immediately, my inner head voice said, No, that’s not right.  Offred herself says it’s not rape.  From chapter 16:

Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for.  There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

But I pushed that knee-jerk reaction aside and thought about it some more.  Just because Offred doesn’t consider it rape, are we obliged to do the same?  Offred clearly doesn’t want to consider herself a victim; she wants to maintain control of her body, her life, her mind.  But what, really, was the choice she had, the alternative to having sex as a Handmaid?  Possible torture and death, from what I can tell.  This is exactly the kind of situation, the kind of dilemma, that we as a society consider rape all the time.  Just because the torture and death aren’t immediate doesn’t make them any less real.

In any case, perhaps the semantics are irrelevant.  The point is that no one should have to do what Offred has to do.  The perverseness of the social order of the Republic of Gilead is well-established by the novel, and will stick with everyone who reads it for a long time.

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The GeekyNerdy Book Club is a new, bimonthly reading group hosted by GeekyNerdyGirl on her blog Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl.  (That was a lot of geeking and nerding in one sentence!)  We’re kicking it off with the post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi novel The Water Knife.

I literally had no idea what this cover looked like until now, because I read this on my Kindle.

The novel features a trio of interesting characters: enterprising young Texas refugee Maria, hardcore journalist Lucy, and the titular “water knife”/enforcer Angel; their stories intersect in a future, water-starved Phoenix, AZ.  Maria is just trying adapt and survive, while Lucy is trying uncover the real stories behind Phoenix’s slow death, and Angel is there to speed up that death, because there’s only so much water in the Colorado River, and the woman he works for in Las Vegas wants that water up there–as much as she can get, however she can get it.

The mix of genres in this book was very interesting, and I think it would appeal to a wide audience.  It starts off, as I expected, solidly sci-fi, describing the water crisis in the southwestern US caused by climate change.  (I think I tend to avoid this kind of realistic sci-fi because it can verge on preachy, but I didn’t feel like I was beaten over the head with the climate change message here.) Because it’s a near-future, real-world dystopia, much of the technology is familiar, like Tesla cars and solar panels.  But there are also some new inventions, like Clearsacs, which purify urine into drinking water.

Suddenly somewhere in the middle of the book I realized I was actually reading a Western, complete with a mysterious gunslinger, a threatened homesteader who still won’t leave her “ranch,” and lots of doublecrossing.  How cool!  I love sci-fi/Western mixes; the two genres have so much in common.  As I read further, I thought it was a thriller.  Towards the end, I realized it was actually a mystery!  Really, it’s all of this rolled into one.  No matter what genre you would call this, the story was way more pulp-y than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it.

One thing that mildly bothered me was the pacing.  The story starts slow, and doesn’t really pick up until the characters meet each other—that’s nearly halfway through the book!  The ending, too, seems a bit sudden.  I have nothing against open-ended stories, but we don’t get much resolution on the characters’ relationships and future directions.  One character is even unconscious at the end!  (She’s not going to be happy when she wakes up…)

The story does have some intense elements, and two mildly graphic sex scenes.  The future is apparently pretty brutal–at least the sex scenes provide some character development.

Speaking of characters, Angel’s boss, Catherine Case, is an interesting one.  She’s only briefly physically present in the book, but her shadow falls on everything.  They call her the “Queen of the Colorado”—I think you’re supposed to despise and admire her at the same time.  I don’t know if the relationship between her and Angel is broken at the end of the story, because I don’t know if it was ever based on trust to begin with (or at least, how I would define trust).  Like Angel, Case is very unemotional about betrayal.  She trusts patterns, not people.  I could see her taking Angel back, only to have him taken out for something else in the future.  Or just killing him now anyways.  Or never.  Whatever’s most beneficial for her.

This map would have been super helpful for me while reading, because I’ve never been out West. From wikipedia

Overall, I’d give this book 4 out 5 stars.

I’ve already read and enjoyed Bacigalupi’s YA novel Ship Breaker, and now I think I’d like to read his award-winning debut novel The Windup Girl.  But maybe later.  I can only take so much dystopia.

In the meantime, our next GeekNerdy Book Club choice will be:

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Should be a little lighter in tone.  Hope you’ll join us in a few months!

Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

shadesofgreyPlease note that there is no number in the title.  This is Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron, not to be confused with that other book (I think some confusion between the two may have been why this book did not take off).

This book is a clever and witty sci-fi story that is at once entertaining and thoughtful.  In a post-“Something That Happened” world, citizens of Chromatacia are placed into castes based on which color(s) they can see, and there are many rules that govern their behavior.

Eddie Russett, who can see quite a lot of red, is ready to take his place in society, when he finds himself distracted by a mystery involving a Grey girl with a cute nose, a wheelbarrow in the middle of the road, treasure troves of spoons, and several dead people.  It doesn’t really go well for him.  As he opens the novel:

It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant.

So there’s that.  But of course, the answers Eddie finds lead him to the truth that not all is as well as it seems in the Colortocracy.

The story takes place over four days, but honestly it seems like a lot longer.  The first half or so of the book is a bit slow and leans heavily on clever writing (which is enough for me!) as it dribbles out pieces of the mystery.  It really picks up about 2/3 of the way though, when the trip to High Saffron begins to take shape, and the end is really excellent, with some twists that give the story nuance and complexity.

I think anyone who likes dystopian sci-fi, with some British humor thrown in, will really enjoy this story.  There were supposed to be some sequels coming out (they’re listed in the back of the book), which would be really excellent, but the story functions in a self-contained fashion as well.  The author is busy with his other popular series, including Thursday Next, so I don’t know if sequels are still in the cards or not.

For more info on Shades of Grey, check out the website.

5/5 stars

UK edition of Shades of Grey
The UK cover is simply awesomer, and features the deadly Giant Swan (taxa number unknown because “no-one has been close enough to find out”).

Books that were good, but could have been better

One of the stranger experiences for me as a reader is when I find myself mentally editing the novel I’m reading.  I think I may do this more after NaNoWriMos, when my brain is in writing mode, but either way it’s happened to me on multiple occasions.

Last week I read The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, which is a YA fantasy following young Twylla, the embodiment of a mythic figure in her kingdom.  Her special powers?  She can kill with her touch, which lends itself to a role as the queen’s executioner.

The cover, however, needs no improvement.
The cover, however, needs no improvement.

The opening chapter was a bit lackluster.  Obviously we need some introduction to the mythology of the country, and also an opportunity to see Twylla use her powers, but as I was reading, I felt several parts should be rearranged, and I realized I knew exactly how I would do it.

As I got more into the book, my inner editor got much quieter.  There were some big twists, and characters that felt nearly realistic (and a stupid love triangle).  I read the whole thing straight through.  The ending indicates that (duh) there will be more books.  I probably won’t read them.  The pieces were all there, they just weren’t quite put together perfectly.

Story=good. Prose=ouch.
Story=good. Prose=ouch.

Last year in my fit of YA dystopian readings, I came across the Maze Runner series by James Dashner.  This trilogy was so well plotted and paced I just had to keep reading.  The problem?  The prose.  When it was good it was fine, but when it was bad…I found myself re-writing it in my head.

This one really messed with my head, because there were times when I thought, That sounds like something I would write.  And then I proceeded to tear it apart and make it better.  My driving need to edit my own writing is one reason I fail at NaNoWriMo; I just cannot stop my editing.  One more symptom of my perfectionist personality.


The Sin Eater’s Daughter (Melinda Salisbury)–2.5/5 stars

The Maze Runner/The Scorch Trials/The Death Cure (James Dashner)–3/5 stars

The Kill Order (James Dashner)–2/5 stars, skip this prequel!

K-pop MVs: BIGBANG’s “Fantastic Baby”

Even if you haven’t watched any of the K-pop MVs I’ve posted so far, you’re going to want to see this one.

Sorry, Kanye, but this is one of the best videos of all time.  It’s the 5th most viewed K-pop video on YouTube (and the 4 above it are from PSY).

Where do I even start with this video? The fashion?  The dystopian theme?  The beat that makes you “wanna dance dance dance da-ance?”  I’m pretty sure it’s just summed up by: EPIC.

BIGBANG and 2NE1 are both signed by YG Entertainment, and have similar styles, so they’re kind of thought of as brother-sister groups.  They even collaborated on a commercial song Lollipop (now that is a terrible video).

The members (in the order they start singing):

  • G-Dragon (0:06)–main rapper, leader
  • Taeyang (0:21)–main vocalist, main dancer
  • TOP (1:10)–lead rapper
  • Daesung (1:32)–lead vocalist
  • Seungri (2:16)–vocalist, lead dancer, maknae

“Main” is ranked higher than “lead” in these positions.  G-Dragon is actually not the oldest but simply has the personality to be the leader.  The “maknae” is the baby of the group.  As for the visual (the “face” of the group), GD and TOP both could fill this role.

 Things I love about this video:

  • You’ll notice there’s no real choreography in this video.  That’s pretty common for BIGBANG; the songs do have choreography, but they use it for their live stage shows instead of their videos.
  • The members are kind of introduced one by one.  Poor Seungri doesn’t even appear in the video until nearly 2 minutes in.
  • Daesung’s blond hair. TOP’s blue hair. GD’s color-changing hair. EVERYBODY’S HAIR.
  • Taeyang’s tats (which are not real).
  • GD’s Dragonball tat (seen on his left shoulder at 1:48, which is real).
  • All the thrones in the end shot are seen previously in the video except Daesung’s.
  • Crowns are actually a symbol used by BIGBANG’s fan group members, called VIPs.

More from BIGBANG: