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Bearing witness January 26, 2020

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews, Uncategorized.
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I have to admit that I was a little bit cynical when I discovered that Margaret Atwood had published a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. On the back of a successful TV series (and, more pointedly, a global political context in which the ideas explored in her original book were front and centre in the popular consciousness) which had renewed interest in her dystopian story, it felt like cashing in. Or, if not cashing in, perhaps an attempt to close the conversation by providing definitive answers to the ambiguous questions with which The Handmaid’s Tale novel closed.

Cover - The Testaments

Unfortunately, I have to say that I was proved right. The Testaments is an engaging and competently told story, which, were it an unrelated novel about resistance to a dystopian regime, or a piece of fanfic written in the world of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, I would find very good indeed. It weaves the stories of three women bound up in the struggle against Gilead and all it stands for, showing how their actions, independently and together, hasten the demise of its iniquitous regime. But the choice of which three women Atwood has chosen to illustrate this revolution is very telling: Aunt Lydia, the instigator of the entire programme responsible for codifying and implementing the legalised rape of women designated Handmaids, and the two daughters of June/Offred, the original novel’s narrator. Her older daugher, Hannah, is raised in ignorance of her origins to be the perfect Gilead Wife, while her younger, Nicole, has been spirited away in secret to Canada and raised in ignorance of her origins by people leading the anti-Gilead resistance movement. All three, ultimately, work against the regime, and the novel shows us clearly how their actions are enough to bring the dictatorship down.

And that, I think, is my first problem with The Testaments. The overthrow of Gilead feels too easy: it takes only a mere decade or so, and although Atwood is careful to show how the resistance is operating in secret under the very noses of the authorities, conducted in plain site through quiet moments of ‘women’s work’ that the men in power don’t notice, in the end the regime’s demise seems to have been mainly the result of the actions of three very heroic individuals. Atwood was very clear when writing The Handmaid’s Tale that all elements of the abusive situation in which women in Gilead found themselves were drawn from an amalgam of real-world precedents, including purely US American phenomena such as the fundamentalist, patriarchal Christian Quiverfull movement. These real-world injustices were (and are) deeply entrenched, and those that were overcome were done so only after the work of decades, centuries, and incalculable numbers of people. Ending Gilead in less than a decade felt unearned, unrealistic, and, to my mind, unjustifiably hopeful.

But by far the deeper problem with The Testaments is its ending of ambiguity. Atwood writes in an afterword that she wrote the novel in the main to provide answers to the many questions readers of The Handmaid’s Tale have asked her over the years. But it’s the ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale that is, in large part, responsible for that novel’s power: readers leave that book knowing that the regime ends, but not how, and not after how long. We’re left uncertain of its narrator’s fate, and even the identities of many of the people about whom she writes: the book is limited in space and time by design, the bounds of its world mirroring the experiences of the woman who gives voice to the way her own world has become narrowed and constricted. Did we really need to know that she escapes to join the resistance in Canada, or that Nick, the driver whose loyalties are uncertain, was working against Gilead from the beginning? Did we need to know that Aunt Lydia was always working to undermine the regime from within? The whole thing felt to me like an attempt to restore clarity to a story — and characters — whose strength had always been a kind of fuzzy uncertainty, more realistic to the way most people live with, and within injustice. People in The Handmaid’s Tale were not blazing, unafraid revolutionaries, or cartoonish villains (although of course many of them did horrifically terrible things) — mostly they were terrified, just trying to survive, or alternated between being sources of respite or violence for the people whose lives were in their hands. It was a quieter story that redefined what resistance looked like, which at once remorselessly condemned progressive North American women for being asleep at the wheel to the dangers posed by US Christian fundamentalism, assuming their rights would be safe and assured once it became somewhat socially acceptable for women to work in positions of authority, and spoke with compassion for people rendered powerless by oppressive, violent regimes, showing that sometimes mere survival is its own kind of heroism.

The Testaments does shine a light on the minds of women growing up immersed in a violent, patriarchal society, and there are some devastating moments, such as the acknowledgement that extreme patriarchy which renders all men as constantly beset by violent, lustful thoughts (and all women responsible for men’s behaviour) while keeping girls completely ignorant of sex for the sake of their ‘purity’ will result in nothing other than creating a generation of women so repulsed by and terrified of sex that they will refuse to the the one thing required of them: to marry and bear children. For the most part, however, it forgoes these quiet moments of connection with the terrifying, real-world effects of fundamentalist patriarchy for clear answers which readers shouldn’t need, undermining the devastating power of The Handmaid’s Tale itself. Sometimes, readers don’t need clarity: ambiguity is not just sufficient, but desirable.

Books for joy September 18, 2016

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews, Uncategorized.
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My recent reading has made me so happy that I’ve decided to try out something new with my reviews: a semi-regular category, books that make me joyful and that I want to praise to the skies. This first post of this kind covers three books which really spoke to me, and that I cannot recommend enough.

The Olive Conspiracy is the fourth novel in Shira Glassman’s wonderful Mangoverse series (there are also two short story collections set in the same universe), which follows the adventures of Queen Shulamit, her partner Aviva, and their ever-expanding found family of kind-hearted misfits, as they undertake the business of ruling Shulamit’s tropical kingdom of Perach. This fourth book sees Shulamit and co dealing with an international conspiracy to hamper the agriculture (and thus economy) of Perach, bringing Shulamit back in contact with her first love, Crown Princess Carolina of the neighbouring kingdom of Imbrio.

There’s so much to love about this book, and the series as a whole. Perach is a fantasy Jewish kingdom coexisting in a magical, medieval inflected world with other, non-Jewish nations (such as Imbrio). Almost all of the major characters are gay, lesbian or bisexual, in loving relationships supported by their friends, families and community, and there are also several transgender secondary or tertiary characters, and although their stories are not without conflict, there is never any threat of a tragic or unhappy ending. But what really makes these books great for me is their emphasis on kindness, cooperation, and non-violent solutions to thorny problems. The Mangoverse books are proof that in the hands of the right author, a compelling story about fundamentally decent people is possible. That they’re also filled with loving, detailed descriptions of mouthwatering food is just an added bonus!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers shares a few similarities to Glassman’s work. It, too, is the story of a found family of oddballs, who are for the most part kind and good people seeking to avoid conflict and bloodshed, and food also features heavily. However, it’s set in the distant future, on a spaceship which is home to a multispecies crew whose job it is to create the hyperspace tunnels that make fast, convenient space travel possible for their fellow inhabitants of the skies. If you liked Firefly, but found yourself frustrated with the limitations of the future it imagined (a Chinese-inflected future with no visible Chinese characters; misogyny and other contemporary problems still present centuries into the future, and so on), this may be the book for you.

Chambers has imagined a future that is truly welcoming to all, in which human beings are just one species among many other sentient cultures of the universe, all of whom have organised themselves into a vast, intergalactic United Nations of sorts. The humans are very much the junior partners in this enterprise – late arrivals who were only taken in out of pity after half the inhabitants of Earth fled to Mars (the wealthy, who could afford to get out) and the other half took to the skies in a suicidal act of desperation as the planet became utterly uninhabitable. While it should be sobering to read of an all-too-plausible future in which we have rendered Earth utterly inhospitable to life, it’s oddly comforting to imagine a time when humans are only a tiny, insignificant fraction of the crowded skies of a vast, inhabitable universe. It’s as if the insignificance and miraculous survival of the human beings of Chambers’ novel caused them to grow out of the horrors that currently plague us: selfishness, lack of forward thinking, and rapacious, destructive greed. Humans in this book are more humble, and, like all the sentient beings in their universe, more open and understanding of difference. It’s more a character-driven story: don’t read it for the plot, which is as meandering and episodic as the journey of the spaceship its characters call home, but it’s as comforting and welcoming as a warm blanket, drawing you in to a hopeful and reassuring future.

The final book reviewed here, Kate Elliott’s Poisoned Blade, is less cozy and consoling than the first two — Elliott certainly knows how to put her characters through the emotional wringer — but it too brought me great joy. It’s the follow-up to Court of Fives, Elliott’s first foray into young-adult literature, which I reviewed here. Poisoned Blade sees Jessamy and her sisters following dangerous and different roads to ensure their family’s survival. Their individual stories and struggles intertwine with the revolution that is simmering below the surface of their profoundly unequal society, as well as with the broader political conflicts threatening their country.

Kate Elliott is one of my favourite writers of stories of girls and women, because she always depicts many different types of female characters, with nary a stock trope in sight. Poisoned Blade is no different: we’ve got Jessamy, who is a competitive and talented sports player, confident in her physical abilities but out of her depth in challenges that require subterfuge, subtlety or verbal persuasion. Her sister Amaya and her friend (and lover) Denya are much better at handling the delicate dangers that take place in the homes of the wealthy and privileged, and while they — like all women in their society, particularly the lower class (like Denya) and the Efean Commoners (those who, like Amaya, Jessamy and their mother and sisters, descend from the original inhabitants of their land who were conquered by the Patrons who rule them) — lack overt and political power, they are adept at exercising power indirectly and carving out a place of relative safety for themselves. There are so many other types of women in this book, but I’d like to draw particular attention to Amaya, Jessamy and their siblings’ wonderful mother, who is a character after my own heart: the sort of woman whose strength lies in her ability to empathise with and care for others, and who quietly does the vitally important work of forging alliances, building connections, and sustaining others. The world of Poisoned Blade is deeply hostile to women, and Elliott doesn’t shy away from that, but she also emphasises the many important relationships women and girls form in spite of that, and the strength that they draw from these connections. There are also giant, robot spiders, a growing revolution led by the dispossessed, and intense competitions in a sport that involves racing through a massive, terrifying obstacle course. What more could you want?

Let loose to roam teh internets once more May 13, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in Uncategorized.
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Our old modem completely collapsed the other day. It’s always been a bit iffy, often refusing to connect, but usually what you have to do is switch it off for a few minutes and then it’s fine. We got fed up with doing this, and angrily phoned our ISP. They talked us through a firmware upgrade, which broke the modem. So we got a new one for free. But I had to wait several days.

I realised, when sitting through this torture, how much I’ve come to rely on the internet. Whenever something goes wrong, I jump on #btts and whine about it to the sraffies, or, if no-one’s around, post about it over at the ‘Pub or on LJ or something. But…broken internet, so how could I go online to complain.

Then I realised that much of my daily OCD-induced routine involves the internet. Every day I check my two email addresses several times. I’ll hang out over at the ‘Pub for quite a bit, and also check my LJ friends page. I’m on Facebook quite a bit, too, and I’ll also tend to check out what’s going on at Obernet. I also read a few blogs such as Boing Boing and Joel’s SMH blog, as well as webcomics such as XKCD, Get Medieval, QC and NAR when moony gets his act together.

Without this daily routine, I felt bound, limited, disconnected…caged. This worried me a lot. If you’d told me two years ago that I’d become an internet addict, I would’ve laughed in your face, and then buried my head in a book. Well, I still bury my head in books, but I also bury it in various outlets for my self-absorption. The degree of my distress at being internet-less worries me. But not enough to give up feeding my addiction.

I was in Melbourne over the weekend at my newest sister’s baptism, and I have a few photos to put up, but I’ll probably do that on LJ and Facebook. If you’re reading this, you know where to find me at either of those places.

/me hugs the whole internet, and in particular the above-mentioned sites
Oh, how I’ve missed you!

First post March 25, 2008

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Well, I’ve decided to start using wordpress. I skipped over here after being thoroughly disgusted with some stuff that was going on at LJ, and although I don’t think I’ll abandon LJ – my blog there is a bit like a spoiled, much-loved child – I’ll try wordpress for a bit.

What can I say?  I tend to spread myself too thinly across the internet – especially when vanity and exhibitionism are involved.