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.




One of my favorite aspects of writing: research

Some days writing is exhilarating. Some days it’s exhausting.  But the research is always fascinating.

My recent Google search history would certainly befuddle the adorable little man in this picture.  I’d imagine he wouldn’t have to look up the Oxford comma, but doubt he’d be researching ‘what skills you need as a mental health therapist’, ‘writing a novel in 30 days-is it possible? should you try?’,  ‘are men with shaved heads more dominant’, ‘dashboard cats’, and last but not least: ‘track your Amazon package’.

As a writer, what oddball things do you end up researching?




Background music for writers

Some of my writing friends listen to music for inspiration, mostly notably Lia Keyes who is working on her steampunk novel and listens to Phantom of the Opera. Seems like the perfect choice for what promises to be a deliciously, dark mystery.

Normally I don’t listen to music while I write, but I’m intrigued by the idea of using my auditory senses to help ‘set the mood’. 

Here’s my dilemma though. What in the world would make good background music for a book with cats as the main characters, an evil professor and his Whisperer, a magical book of power and a host of mythological characters ranging from the dark to the light side, and settings that range from the ancient Library of Iskandriyah to a small public library in the foothills of California.

See what I mean? Suggestions welcome.

In the meantime, I’m going to check out Five great ways to find music that suits your mood,  a Mashable article that reviews several websites that let you pick out music according to your moods and emotions, rather than artist, genre or title.

What do you listen to, if anything, while writing?

Libraries going ‘bookless’

Does anyone else find this terribly disturbing? I’ve been reading about the trend for libraries to digitize themselves but this is unbelievable!

 “The headmaster of a central Massachusetts school that eliminated most of the books in its library says the move has worked well, turning the the library into a magnet for students and faculty. The school whittled the library’s stacks from 20,000 to 8,000 books, Tracy said in an interview today. Only about 1,000 books will remain after the two-year transition is completed by the end of this summer. The bookshelves that were exchanged for learning areas have created “exciting” social learning spaces for a generation that is “very much about networking,” Tracy added. Stanford University is also moving toward the creation of its first “bookless library.”   
Why throw ALL of the books out? Why can’t we blend what they are calling old and outdate (that would be the books!) with the new digital technology? It makes no sense that libraries are doing this without thinking of the consequences. If the power goes out or the Kindle breaks down, you can still read a book. You can drop a book and still read it. You can spill coffee on it and still read through the stain.

Digitizing the entire library makes books completely inaccessible for those who do not own computers or … perish the thought… simply want to check out a book to take home.

I’m not a Luddite. I love a lot of things about new technology, but I think there’s room for a different vision than this barren wasteland that has none of the smell or feel of a library.  This is truly the sad sheep of a tragedy dressed in digital wolves clothing.

So you want to be a writer…

Should I let Algernon die, or let him suffer at the whims of his evil brother?
Even cats have trouble with the blank page.

Here’s what I’ve learned about writing in the last three years. When everyone else is:

  1. watching TV, I am probably writing.
  2. sleeping, I am usually writing and editing.
  3. on FaceBook, I’m…ooops…gotta get back to writing.
  4. blogging, I am writing, wishing I had more time to blog.
  5. shopping, I am revising a chapter.
  6. texting and tweeting, I am talking to my MC.
  7. eating, I am eating but it’s at my computer so I can catch up on email, blogs and news.
  8. reading, well,  I might be reading.
  9. showering, I am showering, but usually in writing mode with no way to write down the brilliant idea that came to me.
  10. working out, I am exercising my brain wishing it would burn 300 calories an hour.
  11. cutting the grass, I am letting the grass grow to revise another chapter, or paragraph, or sentence.
  12. cooking, I am throwing something in the crockpot to go revise another chapter, or paragraph, or sentence.

You gotta love writing to be this crazy!

Point of view: a reader and writer’s perspective

Writing has made me a more critical reader. My latest library book lost me as a reader because of technical issues. Besides some rather drab characters and a meandering plot, the POV shifted so often I was starting to feel the main action of the story was my ability to leap about between character’s heads. I won’t tell you what the book  is because I don’t want to bash another writer. I can tell you that the main reason I picked it up was author recognition.

Besides being irritating, it raised all kinds of questions.  How is a well known published writer allowed to commit these major editorial sins? Where is her editor? Does this bother anybody besides me?

Point of view is challenging. It was a difficult concept for me to grasp and flipping between character’s heads is easier than channel surfing. It’s so easy to do without being aware of it, but my handy dandy desktop Self-Editing for Fiction Writers helps guide me through these muddy waters.

I also find it useful to read books, like the annoying one mentioned, which ignore this important element because it makes me aware of how much I don’t want to inflict these mental gymnastics on my readers.

As a writer, it took me a while to understand which point of view I was even writing in, but once I did, it raised my POV consciousness. For me, writing a fantasy seen through the eyes of a cat, means I must ‘become the cat’.

As a reader, I don’t have the patience to stay with a book that forces me to guess who’s thinking what. I returned the book to the library. Now I need something good to read!