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.

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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.

GNBC: July Selection — Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl

I’m still working on finishing our last book, The Handmaid’s Tale, but in the meantime, please join us at GNBC next month reading one of Carrie Fisher’s memoirs, Shockaholic.

Happy Monday nerds!! If, like me, you were at a comic con this weekend, you are probably having a stronger case of the Mondays than usual. As such, I thought I would go with a relatively short post highlighting the next selection in our GeekyNerdy Book Club! After “last” month’s dive into Margaret Atwood’s The […]

via GNBC: July Selection — Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl

GeekyNerdy Book Club: As You Wish

51aluqonyfl-_sx329_bo1204203200_This installment of the GNBC features As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.  It is a memoir by Cary Elwes (who played Westley in the film) about his time spent making that film.  If you have never seen The Princess Bride…well, first of all, you should go see it, because it’s wonderful and funny and appeals to so many types of people.  But obviously this book is intended for fans of the movie, and as I consider myself one, I enjoyed it greatly.

I have been a fan of Cary Elwes in many roles, including his turn as a thief on Psych, and his role as a Robin Hood with an English accent.  He has always seemed like a very charming man, and consequently his book is very charming.  He comes across as very modest and gracious, (mostly) level-headed but with a spirit of joy in life.

I’ve never read a memoir from a film set before, so it was very interesting to me to learn not just about The Princess Bride, but how all movies are made in general.  Shooting on location, training, stunts, cast interactions, the whole process.  For example, the very first scene Elwes shot was the Fire Swamp, which involved setting Robin Wright (Buttercup)’s dress on fire, and then later practically improvising the stunt where Westley dives headfirst into the quicksand (he was originally just supposed to jump in feet-first).  He also trained with fencing professional for months to be able to do the swordfight scene with Inigo.  I was constantly telling my husband (also a fan) all these little tidbits I was learning as I went along.

The book also makes frequent use of perspectives from the other cast members (Fred Savage, Christopher Guest, Christopher Sarandon, Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, etc.), the director Rob Reiner, and the writer William Goldman (who also wrote the original book).  Everything that everyone says just gives you a sense that they all had such a good time making this film, that they put so much love into it, and it has a very special place in their hearts.  I think it really shows in the finished product.  Because of this happy energy, it is a fun, light read, and because of the format of vignettes and anecdotes, it is very easy to pick up and put down if you don’t have much time for reading.

The book covers many of the famous scenes from the movie, as well as some behind-the-scenes things, and it even covers a little of the release of the movie.  I always kind of figured The Princess Bride was considered a “cult classic,” because I had never heard of it until I was in high school, and the book outlines why this is.  Upon its release, the studio had trouble marketing it, apparently because of the mix of genres, and though the initial audience reaction was great, the movie basically flopped.  But once it started making its way onto VHS and getting spread by word of mouth, its popularity picked up,eventually becoming such that the cast had a 25th anniversary reunion screening at the Lincoln Center in 2012.  The movie is now thirty years old and just as popular as ever.

I think this book will definitely change the way I see the movie the next time I watch it.  I will now never be able to NOT think about the fact that Westley is actually getting knocked out by Count Rugen (no acting required!) and that he had a broken toe in some scenes, etc.  It does kinda pull the veil of movie magic back a bit, but I still find it entertaining, just in a different way.

Reading the memoir also inspired me to start reading the original novel, which I am also really enjoying.  Even just getting through the author’s forward is an entertaining journey.

Next time on GNBC we will switch back to fiction, so keep an eye out for a new pick soon.

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Starlit Wood

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The cover is beautiful, and even has some raised details.

Welcome back to the bi-monthly GNBC; this time our selection was The Starlit Wood, a collection of short fairy tale retellings.  Check out GeekyNerdyGirl’s original post here.

I finished all the stories, but it was a near thing.  It’s been a while since I’ve read short stories, so I really enjoyed getting back to that.  But the content of these stories was so diverse in terms of tone, style, setting, and fantasy and sci-fi elements that it was very hard to read more than one story in a sitting; I’d get really into a story, then have to completely switch gears to start the next one.  It’s a great collection, but it made for a rather long read.

There are few things that I love to read more than fairy tale retellings.  I took a whole seminar on fantasy in children’s literature during university, and the first thing we looked at was fairy tales.  These types of stories have a universality to them that I think explains their popularity across cultures and throughout the ages.  Some of the stories here hew closer to the originals, and some I really struggled to figure out what the original tale was.  (The authors’ notes at the end of the stories were wonderful!)

There were several Westerns, several set in other countries, several in space, and of course some in that took place in that typical “magical realism” fairy tale setting.  I want to pick out a few to talk about more specifically.

The two stories that I found the funniest were by “Even the Crumbs were Delicious” by Daryl Gregory (a Hansel and Gretel tale involving a druggie and his lickable wallpaper with drugs) and “The Super Ultra Duchess of Fedora Forest” by Charlie Jane Anders (an obscure Grimm Brothers tale turned into “a kind of Adventure Time fanfic”).

The most depressing stories actually came towards the front of the book: “Underground” by Karin Tidbeck and “Familiaris” by Genevieve Valentine.  Both of these had a lot to say about the state of women in fairy tales, and it’s pretty bleak.  They paint some interesting parallels to the state of women in modern life: no agency, trapped in their roles, expected to bear children they may not even want.  I appreciated that they made this think about that but whoa, they were downers.

My favorites turned out to be ones that didn’t deviate too much from fairy tale territory, but still managed to breathe new life into the original tale.  “Seasons of Glass and Iron” (Amal El-Mohtar) is actually a mash-up to two tales, brilliantly done, that ends with the heroines saving each other by pointing out the truth of each other’s stories.  “The Briar and the Rose” (Marjorie Liu) likewise has two great female protagonists that help each other.  And anchoring the book is “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, a nice take on “Rumpelstiltskin”; if you only read one story from the book, I’d recommend this one…then go read her original fairy tale, Uprooted.

There were several other good ones as well (shout out to “Penny for a Match, Mister?” by Garth Nix–one of the Westerns–and “The Other Thea” by Theodora Goss).  If you like fairy tale retellings, I think you will enjoy this collection also.  One nice thing about collections like this is that you can sample some new authors in addition to ones you’ve already read and loved.  I definitely want to check out more works by several of these authors.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our GeekNerdy Book Club selections this year; stay tuned for more in 2017.

 

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Welcome back to GNBC, a bimonthly virtual book club hosted by Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl.

VintageWe’re back to nonfiction this month with Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  There is a lot of information in this book, not just about Wonder Woman but also about her creator William Moulton Marston and the women in his life that influenced the superheroine.

I came to this book not knowing a lot about Wonder Woman.  I’ve never read her comics, and I wasn’t alive for the 70s TV show, so my primary experience with her was the DCAU’s Justice League and JLU cartoons.  To me, she’s always been the weak point of DC’s Big Three: too powerful to be interesting, and too…fashion-challenged to represent comic women as a whole.

But with this year being the 75th anniversary of her creation, I was eager to learn more about Wonder Woman, and I’m happy to report that I am now definitely on Team Wondy.

I got off to a bit of a rocky start with this book, because I was turned off by the tone; the author’s intro has things like “Stop the presses. I’ve got the history of Wonder Woman.” that I found hyperbolic, bordering on smug. (For context, those sentences echo lines from a WW comic, but the reference felt more patronizing than something that would come from a fellow geek.)

My irritation continued into the details of Marston’s psychological experiments (which included developing a lie detector test).  This was not the fault of the author, but rather Marston himself, who was apparently a terrible scientist.  His “experiments” often barely warrant the name, with small sample sizes, questionable methodology, and dubious conclusions; yet he was constantly trying to “sell” his science to the media and the public.  Reading these descriptions, it’s hardly surprising that experimental psychology is currently undergoing a reproducibility crisis.

Also irritating is the fact that it was Marston’s name on all these papers, professorships, etc. when his wife Sadie Elizabeth Holloway had nearly identical credentials and worked on many of these projects with him.  For me, she was the most interesting “character” in the story.  My respect for her was cemented by her reaction to Marston’s ultimatum regarding his affair with Olive Byrne; she agreed to let Olive live with them, but Holloway would keep her career and let Olive raise the children.  Also, after Marston’s death she lobbied heavily to take over writing WW, but naturally was denied, which lead to a decline in quality of the comic.

Part way through, the book shifts into the history of early 20th century feminism, which I knew shockingly little about and found fascinating.  This leads up to the introduction of Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece.  Olive was also very interesting to me, because while she seemed perfectly happy living the kind of “nontraditional” lifestyle that she did, she also lied and lied and lied about it until her death, even to her children regarding who their real father was (Marston).  Her bracelets were the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s.

By the time we got to the actual creation of Wonder Woman I was quite enjoying the book.  I had never even seen a strip from WW’s original run, so I was thrilled that the book makes liberal use of the images from it.  After reading this, I feel like I can really understand and appreciate Marston’s vision for Wonder Woman, who was strong both physically and emotionally and whose ultimate goal was “community.”

This vision has unfortunately been deviated from over the years, resulting in a Woman Woman wields a swords and shield and kills people while spilling out of her bustier.  It will be interesting to see which version we get in her feature film debut next year.

Lastly, for another perspective on this book, I was able to hear the granddaughter of William Moulton Marston and Holloway, Christie Marston, answer some questions at a Wonder Woman symposium last month.  Her opinion of the book was that it was “fiction;” she particularly disagreed with how the Moulton family was portrayed.

Fiction or not, it was a very enlightening and thought-provoking book.  It may be a bit dense in places for casual readers, but I would definitely recommend it to comics fans or feminists.