Siberia; August 15th

It’s August 15th!  Happy Independence Day, India!  Where my excellent friend is and I hope she is having a good time teaching children!  And Happy Assumption of the Virgin Day, Catholics!  I didn’t go to church today despite its being a holy day of obligation, but never mind, I will go another time.  And, says my newspaper, and Wikipedia agrees with me, it is also happy birthday to Phyllis Schlafly, which I normally wouldn’t mention except it’s such a coincidence because I was just thinking about her the other day reading The Handmaid’s Tale!

(When I was in high school and my mum was getting her degree in theology, she had this book called Texts of Terror, by an excellent scholar of Biblical feminism called Phyllis Trible.  And I always scowled at it blackly on the bookshelf when I saw it because I thought it was Phyllis Schlafly, and I knew I didn’t care for Phyllis Schlafly.  And then one time I pulled it out and looked at it properly, and discovered it was close readings of several Biblical incidents involving harm to women.  Not Phyllis Schlafly at all.  Phyllis Trible is someone totally different.)

But on to Ann Halam‘s Siberia, which I read about on Sharry’s blog.  Another YA dystopia book – apparently I can’t get enough of these.  In this case, Sloe and her mother grow up in a snowy wasteland of wretchedness, having been banished thither due to her mother’s scientist proclivities.  The unpleasant future here includes not only lots of hateful government taking people off and killing/banishing them, but no wild animals at all left in the world.  Sloe’s mum is the secret guardian of “seed kits”, which contain the seeds of animals that will allow the earth to be repopulated someday.  Their mission is to bring the kits eventually to a city where they will be safe.

This didn’t really work for me.  Maybe I am dystopia’d out.  This world didn’t feel real, and neither did Sloe’s quest to bring her little seed animals to safety – how could they really use them to repopulate the earth, with the government in power?  They’d just get shot!  I didn’t get a sense of the way the government works, or how the world had ironed itself out (like where were the luxury people that apparently exist?  I don’t know!  It was confusing!), and I didn’t think the seed kit animals were well-explained.  Plus, here are some spoilers for you, I was mad that Sloe’s mum was alive in the end.  I thought the story lacked an emotional punch, and I think it was partly because the environment didn’t seem terribly threatening (as evidenced by Sloe’s mum’s survival).

On the other hand, I was reading it at the hospital, an atmosphere not conducive to reading pleasure, and I have to admit, I was flying through and possibly not paying much attention to it.  I think it could have done with some more fleshing out of the world they live in, but my other criticisms may be completely unfair.  And why am I mad that the mum survived?  I always want people’s loved ones to survive in dystopian books!  Sheesh.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist dystopian satire.  It was sort of a box-tick read, but it was very good, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it and I never ever want to read it again.  In slightly-future America, now a fascist misogynist theocracy called Gilead, Offred (but June, really) is a Handmaid.  This means that she has viable ovaries, and is responsible for producing babies.  Once a month she has sex with the Commander to whom she belongs, and her life is sharply circumscribed – she can’t read, can’t walk in public by herself, can’t talk to other men.

The book is not a straightforward narration of events – what fun would that be, for a Bad Future America?  June’s narration tilts between times, the present and the past and the little she can imagine of her future.  We gradually begin to get a picture of June’s life as a Handmaid – dancing around forbidden subjects with fellow Handmaids and other members of the household, trying to navigate changing relationships with the Commander and his Wife, who used to be an awful Phyllis Schafly person in the time before Gilead became a fascist theocracy.  And June talks about her life before, her husband and daughter, and the events that led up to where she is now, including her time in a women’s indoctrination school.

The Handmaid’s Tale made me feel upset – or, actually, as I have been rigorously trained not to say that anything makes me feel anything, I felt upset when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Obviously that’s the point!  I just don’t think I’m going to read it again.  She just makes it seem so viable – they draw a comparison with Iran, and I’ve been reading about Iran, and it’s scary.  Like, June talks about the speed with which she has adapted to her new life: it’s been only a few years, but already she is shocked to see the clothes on women from other countries, skirts to the knee, and lipstick.  I don’t know – June’s life has become so small, even from what it was at the indoctrination school.  Upsetting.

Something else that upset me: June tells stories about her friend Moira, a feminist who went to her same college, and who was at June’s same indoctrination school.  Moira is brave and rebellious – she swears and gossips and escapes from the school – and June admires this.  But still she recognizes that she isn’t as brave as Moira, and she tries to imagine that Moira finds a way to be free.  “Moira is right,” she says, almost at the end.  “I am a wimp.”  (I’m not brave either.)

Oh, but (spoilers here!) there was one of those lovely unresolved endings that I like so much.  I like these because then things always end happily.  In my mind, June escaped and  she found Luke and she went through the Phyllis Schafly person to find her daughter, and then she got her daughter back, and they moved to Canada, the true North strong and free (yeah, I know that song), and lived happily ever after.  I love it when grim books let you decide what happens in the end.

A bit I liked, about the pre-Gilead days:

There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights.  These things you did like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you.  And for the most part they did.  Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.

And this, from one of the women who indocrinates June.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia.  Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it….We seemed to be able to choose, [in the old days].  We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.

We were the people who were not in the papers.  We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.  It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

I want to read more Margaret Atwood.  I love how she writes.  I only didn’t give this five stars because it gave me a nightmare.  Dammit.  Without even being true!

Other reviews: Book Nut, The Book Lady’s Blog, The Luscious Literary Muse, Books for Breakfast, The Bluestocking Society, Books and Other Stuff, Violet Crush, It’s All About Me, read warbler, things mean a lot, Valentina’s Room, Reading Reflections, In Spring It Is the Dawn, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Rebecca Reads, Boston Bibliophile, and let me know if I missed yours!