The Handmaid’s Tale | Book review

***Spoiler Alert***
A future without hope is not a world I want to live in, even within the pages of a book. As social commentary, Atwood’s dystopian novel seems to have it out for everyone: men, women, God.

To be fair, Atwood explains what drove her to write The Handmaid’s Tale in an essay in the New York Times. In 1984 when she wrote the book, she was living in West Berlin, still encircled by the Berlin Wall. “I experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.”

One of the problems with dystopian novels is the tendency to overstate their case.

While that helps me understand the impact of her experience, I’m still not a fan of this book. One of the problems with dystopian novels is the tendency to overstate their case. Another problem is the aftereffect– leaving the reader with a sense of hopelessness and anger.

As a comparison I recently finished The Girl with Seven Names, an account of a young girl’s daring escape from a truly dystopian nightmare of the North Korean regime. One of the most surprising aspects was how much she longed to return to the love and warmth of her family back home. Even in the darkest places there is often kindness, beauty and love, more precious for their rarity. This aspect is sadly lacking in most dystopian novels, particularly this one.

Even in the darkest places there is often kindness, beauty and love, more precious for their rarity.

In case you haven’t read it, The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about a young woman trying to survive, living at the mercy of those with no mercy.

The people in control (you never learn much about them) are faceless entities who’ve created an ultra-Puritanical society. Women are no longer work permitted to work outside the home and are highly restricted in all their activities. Men are hung in public on a daily basis, for un-named crimes.

Women are assigned to highly structured domestic groups. There are the elite Wives and the EconoWives. There are dumpy Martha’s who do drudge work. There are the Aunts who oversee the rigid training of the Handmaids. Handmaids are highly regarded because they are chosen to have babies, but their training is more of indoctrination into the mindset of the new society than anything involving pregnancy.

Before I get into all the reasons I really disliked this book, I’ll go into what I liked.
I loved Ms. Atwell’s descriptions. As an example, in the opening pages Offred, the main character, describes the room she’s in, a former gymnasium. “I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.” Exquisite isn’t it? Her writing had me hooked.

I liked the main characters ‘voice’. She’s observant and asks a ton of internal questions about this new world she finds herself in.

The fact that Offred apologizes for telling her awful story is rather poignant and was the most emotional moment of the book.

What I didn’t like. Everyone was cruel, vindictive, or just cold. Ok. It’s dystopia. The main character is never really kind or cruel. In fact, she’s mostly bland. The fact that Offred apologizes for telling her awful story is rather poignant and was the most emotional moment of the book.

I hated the main character’s name, Offred. This is getting picky I know, but I think character names are important. The other handmaids’ names started with ‘Off’ as in Offglen, Offred’s shopping companion, and I began to think of them as the Off sisters which helped lighten things a bit for me.

So Offred is placed in a household for the sole purpose of having The Wife’s baby. The husband was known as the Commander. She’s a surrogate, but it’s not a sterile fertility procedure, Instead, she’s forced to endure a kinky sex ritual every month. That scene was too weird for words. Even weirder in this ultra-Puritanical society.

In spite of this odd relationship, Offred and the Commander develop an interesting companionship. Two other characters I thought could have provided an interesting diversion for Offred, if not actual partners in crime. One was her best friend, Moira, who managed a daring escape early on. The other was a sexy male chauffeur with lots of implied sexual tension.

Besides the Commander and the chauffeur, all the other men were characterless and faceless with squeaked-out group descriptions. There were the Guardians of the Faith, and the all-seeing, all knowing Eyes who drive around in black vans arresting people.
Fear rules every relationship. Offred is not allowed to talk to anyone. It’s forbidden for women to read or seek answers.

The ending is vague and implies that she may get rescued which is the very last thing you want for your Protagonist.

Poor Offred gets none of her questions answered. At the ends it implies that she may get rescued which is the very last thing you want for your Protagonist.  “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing,” Offred says. “I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped.”

I very much wanted her to rise above her circumstances and find her way out of the darkness.

The Girl with Seven Names | Book Review

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

Highly recommend  read: Contrary to what you’d expect to be the driving force behind someone defecting from a secretive dictatorship like North Korea, this young girl began her journey as a 17-year-old wanting to see something of the world before she entered college. Like all North Koreans, she was taught that she lived in the greatest country in the world. But she’d heard and loved forbidden South Korean pop songs. She’d watched illegal Chinese soap operas.

She had a better than normal life. Her mother was strict, but her parents were loving. She was brought up well. Her family possessed exceptionally good songbun, a caste system in which “a family was classified as loyal, wavering or hostile, depending on what the father’s family was doing at the time just before, during and after the founding of the state in 1948.”

Her family lived in Hyesan, a village on the border with China, separated only by a small river barely thirty feet across. Her mother, who supplemented the family income,  a born entrepreneur…with a nose for a deal”, had a business partner in the black market with a trusted Chinese family on the other side of the river. Hyeonseo Lee could see their house from her home.

Her daring plan was to cross over for a couple of days to visit relatives and see China. But her motivation, which almost any western teenager could relate to, was deepened by the dangerous questions about her country that she never dared ask aloud.

Why were people starving in what she believed was ‘the most prosperous country in the world’? Beginning in 1993, the North Korean famine which killed over 500,000 people, driving some to cannibalism, was turned into a propaganda campaign, instigating austerity measures, and punishing people who even used the words ‘famine’ and ‘hunger’.

Another thing that haunted her were public executions, mandatory from elementary school on. She witnessed her first execution when she pushed her way through the crowd to see “something a seven-year-old girl should never have seen, a man hanging by the neck.”

She goes on to say: “My curiosity had always been greater than my fear—not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive. Part of me knew very well that crossing into China was highly risky. It could have serious consequences, and not just for me.”

The crossing itself turned out to be easy. But she realized, too late, that she could never go home to her family. Over the next ten years, her wits, courage and plain good fortune would rescue her time and again from life-threatening dangers.

In China she was illegal and had no ID. In the beginning it was unsafe to go outside her aunt and uncle’s apartment. She spent her time becoming fluent in Mandarin so she could pass for Chinese.

After two years with relatives she knew she’d overstayed her welcome and decided to go on her own, living life on the run with a new name. If caught she would be arrested, repatriated, beaten or sent to prison camp.

Desperate to make money, she found work as a hairdresser but it turned out to be a glorified massage parlor. Back on the run, she found a job waitressing and changed her name again. She had no one to talk to. Telling anyone she was North Korean was dangerous. But loneliness made her careless once. Informants were everywhere, betrayals common. She was picked up by the police.

Because she spoke excellent Mandarin and had become proficient in lying, she passed their interrogation. She writes, “Hiding beneath so many lies, I hardly knew who I was anymore.”

She fled to a new city and changed her name again. All this time she had no ID, but managed to work and save enough money to pay smugglers to bring her mother and brother out of North Korea. She was captured by thugs who took her money and demanded more.

Her story reads like a like a spine-tingling thriller which I could not put down.

Before she tells of her escape, however, Hyeonseo Lee reveals what it was like to grow up in this strange kind of confinement. The Kim dynasty created a personality cult that affected every aspect of their lives. Every household had two portraits of the ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il-sung, founder of the country, and his son, Kim Jong-il. The family ate under the gaze of their leaders. The portraits had to be kept scrupulously clean using a special cloth provided by the government. They were placed higher than any other object and no other pictures were permitted on the same wall. Government officials would enter the house monthly to inspect the portraits for the slightest bit of dust or damage.

Surprisingly, she states that “this intrusion of the state into our home did not seem oppressive or unnatural to me. It was unthinkable that anyone would complain about the portraits.”

From kindergarten on, the Great Leaders were the primary subject at school. In kindergarten they were told the story of their birth, the ‘nativity’. At age five the story of Kim Jong-il’s birth seemed magical.

“His birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens – a double rainbow over Mount Paektu, swallows singing songs of praise with human voices, and the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. We listened to this and a shudder of awe passed through our small bodies.

We were the children of Kim Il-sung, and that made us children of the greatest nation on earth. We sang songs about the village of his birth, Mangyongdae, performing a little dance and putting our hands in the air on the word ‘Mangyongdae’.

His birthday, on April 15, was the Day of the Sun, and our country was the Land of the Eternal Sun. These birthdays were national holidays and all children were given treats and candies. From our youngest years we associated the Great Leader and Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.”

Thanks to Hyeonseo Lee’s courage to share her story, we understand more about how three generations of this impenetrable regime has been able to hold an entire nation captive with its fabricated stories.

But that’s only half the story. She recounts the ten years of her harrowing escape across China before she was able to reach safety, all the while longing to return to the love and warmth of her family in North Korea.

 

 

 

The trouble with words

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

Words are such a troublesome means of communication.
They are supposed to be a bridge that allows us to speak from a place with no language. What a strange road they travel from that dwelling place of feeling and thought. How pitiful the words we must use to overcome such a fathomless distance.

I see my efforts result in words that collapse back into the darkness.
I see other words veer off track, traveling skyward until they disappear and I’m back to studying my navel and inner space.

Where is that magic place of clarity where words fit the thought? Where they rush forward and take flight, spanning the distance between you and me. How can my words unite us?

Words seem so cheap, yet they are capable of wielding great power.
They can create a bond that links us. Or a chasm that cuts.
I fear my words lose too much in translation.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t need all these elucidations which too often muddy the water. If we could only chirp, or growl, or bark.
How much simpler life would be.

But it’s too late. I can’t stop searching now.
Even though I know there are no words for some things I have to say.


Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

 

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home | Rumi

Photo by Jian Xhin on Unsplash

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home. Rumi

The Sage’s Tent| FlashFiction Magical Realism

The last cage rolls past. Strains of a Souza march float back over the receding circus train. Children wave flags from high atop their father’s shoulders. Confetti and cotton candy fill the air.

The trumpets’ final notes echo off canyon walls. You can’t see the marching band any longer, but the drumsticks’ crisp solitary clicks leave you yearning for more. Following the last wagon is a troupe of midgets in clown suits. Some of them perform tricks that make you laugh so you don’t notice the others who are sweeping and bagging elephant dung and Cracker Jacks.

The whole procession makes a right turn at the end of Main Street onto a path leading into the forest. In a clearing, the wagons and music come to a halt. The Ringmaster passes by each cage and taps them with his wand. The doors open and the animals exit. Only then do you realize one of the cages is yours. A few of the beasts light up cigarettes waiting for the midgets to finish raising a tent.

When it’s completed, there appears to be a saloon inside. The hyena removes his tie, laughing at the donkey’s joke. They both order scotch. In another tent, a DJ plays hot, cold psychedelic jungle sounds, and the beasts make their own freak show. This performance is not meant for coward’s eyes. Your presence here is to record what goes on behind the scenes.

Outside the situation is not much better. A lizard wipes the smile off his face and licks his lips. The target of his quest will be found in a quieter place. He scuttles off through the pine needles and disappears. A turkey vulture is circling high above the tree line.

You struggle to take notes because there is so much going on and it’s all so strange. A fight breaks out among the dancing bears and a sound like thunder sends timid mice scurrying into holes. You stand your ground. You peer inside the magician’s tent where buyers of magic stand in line to purchase a few of his cheap tricks.

After his last customer, the wizard removes his black satin cape and changes into a business suit. He is proud to report his meeting with the Prime Minister. He leaves by the back door.

Outside her trailer, the bearded lady applies healing balm to the elephant’s foot and offers tea to the midgets and a two-headed boy. Night falls. The full moon rises over the tops of the trees. In the very center of the circus wagons it paints a circle of light. A troubadour recites bawdy poems while jugglers toss light globes into the dark sky. Clowns in face paint do back-flips for your camera.

The Amazing Zumo swings from one side of the clearing to the other on his flying trapeze. On his return flight, he catches his wife, the beautiful Zenda, in midair.The moon continues its arc. The side show tent has become a universe of the ruined. Looking for love, beasts who settled for cheap substitutes have fallen into shadows.

What are you doing here? You’ve seen enough. All you want is to go home. But you can’t remember where that is. Clouds pass over the moon, veiling its beauty as though it were a woman too beautiful for your eyes. The music has faded without your noticing. The only sound you hear is the snoring of beasts.You break into a cold sweat, your whole body shaking.

There is no refuge in sight and you’ve lost your notebook. The moon slips down below the trees, then returns and you don’t think this is odd until another day.

It is the time of night when miracles happens. A nightingale, tuned to a higher frequency, begins her song of yearning. You understand her completely. A Hoopoe has taken up residence in the magnolia tree and called the wild birds together for a conference. Another tent you hadn’t noticed before has a line outside. It is the Sage’s tent. He is serving soup and beautiful secrets to the bearded lady and her friends. There are stepping stones of moonlight from where you are to his door.

What goes on inside a writer’s mind?

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Potters, painters and photographers all have tangible elements to work with. Writers work in a sphere of the unseen. What an ethereal realm we are engaged in…weaving the fabric of our stories from little more than imagination and inspiration. Sometimes I feel like one of the weavers from ‘the emperor’s new clothes’, spinning my story from invisible thread and inviting my readers to believe in the fantasy I’ve created.  Or, perish the thought, am I the foolish king, unfit for this position?

What elements compose the substance of this elusive calling? Just what are the raw materials of our craft? As you might have already noticed, the only visible materials we have are pen and paper.  It’s our brains that do all the heavy lifting. Here’s a look inside the brain of a writer at work.

writer_brain2

What else goes on inside a writer’s mind?

  • A writer is abnormally consumed by the desire of putting ideas into words. Subcategories can include the love of actually writing with pen on paper (even if you use a laptop most of the time), scribbling notes about the most inkling-est of ideas in the most unlikely of places (think showers); and a penchant for writing implements, which can often lead to pen fetishes and petty thievery.
  • A writer will have an overactive right brain that gets really cranky if it kept too long in the box of left brain constraints of making a living.
  • A writer is often overly mental — not able to shut the internal dialogue off. Writing creates an outlet to focus all that cerebral energy and direct it into something hopefully positive, entertaining and inspiring.
  • A writer must have an overactive imagination which stops just short of getting hopelessly lost and going stark raving mad. A healthy dose of reality checks with the outside world is necessary to stay sane.

When in a highly creative state I envision my brain neurons exploding like a bunch of fireworks. In my never-ending thirst for knowledge, Google turned up a new word for me to ponder in searching exploding brain synapses.  Synaptogenesis.

Since I’m no neurosurgeon I can only report my Wikipedia find on this matter. “Synaptogenesis is the formation of synapses between neurons in the nervous system. Although it occurs throughout a healthy person’s lifespan, an explosion of synapse formation occurs during early brain development, known as exuberant synaptogenesis.

Exuberant. I love that word. I’ll take my overactive, exuberant brain as a good sign.

 

The Old Stone Savage

The boulder is a natural monument to the great herds of bison that once ranged over the entire prairie and was used as a “rubbing stone”. Location: Arm River Valley in Saskatchewan, Canada

The old stone savage moves slowly. You and I would not notice his nomadic ways.

A rock of considerable size, the old stone was only a speck of primal dust when earth’s violent labor pains delivered its raw materials. Angels clung to each other in fear and awe of its clamorous birth.

Having arisen to the surface, the young stone left his siblings behind and traveled on an ice flow until he came to the valley floor where he now rests. He is surrounded by wooded hills and rocks born of another but congenial family. Cows often come to scratch their backs on his shoulders.

If you are fortunate enough to find him awake, you can hear him humming.

His tunes are stolen scraps of songs he’s gathered over time. Deeply resonant melodies, the ones that travel on higher frequencies. The ones he remembers are without words for he has no such language.

Some are only simple refrains, but such a variety. Here’s a waltz. There’s a Gregorian chant. Flutes, violins, a melancholy saxophone.

But there’s more, composed by his neighbors and companions. Symphonies from the oaks. Jazz tunes from wildflowers. Sparkling melodies from the spring creek. Echoes from the canyon.

He grows silent as a hawk spirals great circles on thermal updrafts. For a brief moment, the stone feels he is the hawk, air rushing under wide spread wings.

Moonlight winks off the thousand quartz eyes embedded in the old stone savage, igniting a fire which burns within the caverns of his ancient weathered heart.

 


This poem was inspired by Natalie Goldberg and Robert Frost. Natalie approaches writing as Zen meditation and spiritual practice.

Natalie approaches writing as Zen meditation and spiritual practice. From a writing prompt in her book Writing Down the Bones, she suggests:“Take a poetry book. Open to any page, grab a line, write it down, and continue from there. If you begin with a great line, it helps because you start right off from a lofty place.”

What I ‘grabbed’ was the phrase ‘an old stone savage’ from Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. In Frost’s poem it is spring and he is walking his fence line, struck by his neighbor’s appearance as together they replace stones in their mutual wall.“I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top in each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.”

When I read that line, my mind’s eye saw a great burly old boulder, rather than a man. He had history. I developed a great affection for this ancient being while discovering his back story.

The photo, which I discovered later, has history as well. The boulder is a natural monument to the great herds of bison that once ranged over the entire prairie and was used as a “rubbing stone”. Location: Arm River Valley in Saskatchewan, Canada