The Handmaid’s Tale

handmaid's taleHow have I waited so long to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? It’s a classic, and has been televised, and is the kind of thing that sometimes you don’t read because you think you know all you need to about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and I really should have read it long ago.

Sometime in the 20th century a Christian extremist sect sets up a totalitarian theocracy in the US. The handmaids are a caste of women able to have children which is now a rare ability, due to widespread sterility. It’s not clear if that because of environmental toxins or out-of-control STDs. Offred doesn’t know what’s true and what isn’t, so neither does the reader. The ruling elite use propaganda to create the beliefs they want the populace to have, and much of what the narrator, Offred, relates is what she’s been encouraged to believe. The parallels between that and the distortion of reality created in today’s media are striking.

Offred describes her life, her illegal relationships with the Commander and his driver, Nick, and her eventual escape via an underground railroad. It is compelling. The claustrophobic nightmare of Offred’s life is vivid. What struck me the most was the boredom. Offred has nothing to do. People are not permitted to read or to write and a handmaid’s only role is to breed. Offred is allowed a daily trip to obtain rationed food but she has no other role, so she spends a lot of time on her own in her room doing nothing. There are exercises and prayers but Offred is not a true believer.

I was gripped by the story. I’d expected, as it was published in 1985, to find it dated. Scarily, the opposite was true. It seems like a future that is only a couple of steps away. One or two wrong turns and we could easily end up there. Atwood’s realisation of the impact of living in a totalitarian society is chilling. It’s an important book and is still relevant. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t wait any longer.


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Half the Sky

Sometimes there are books that really make an impression, that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn is a book like that.

It covers the experience of many women in the developing world, including sex trafficking, honour killings, lack of access to education, inadequate healthcare, maternal mortality, genital mutilation, the use of rape to control, and domestic violence. It relies on anecdote and stories to make its points, and in some places those stories are harrowing.

Nothing in this book should really come as a surprise. It’s not like these things haven’t been happening for a very long time. It is useful to be reminded once in while, but tragic that we need reminding.

There’s a lot missing from Half the Sky. There’s no real acknowledgement that these things happen in the developed world too, and the discussion of the impact of poverty is reduced to suggestions about where best to put your charity. Many of the experiences of women in this book are entrenched systemically and no amount of charity and micro-finance are going to change a global system that relies on most people being poor so that a few can be rich. And there’s very little discussion of how this inequality supports the developed world; perhaps because that might get in the way of persuading us that we can do something.

And that’s why this book is having so much impact; (not just on me, the internetz is mad for it) because it makes the reader feel like they can do something to help, something to change things. I’ve joined Kiva as a result of reading this book. I have mixed feelings about charity (it’s paternalistic, corrupt, can entrench harmful cultural attitudes) as I think it acts as a sticking plaster on wound but fails to remove the thing that cut you, but the stories in this book show how it can be positive. Change only happens in tiny steps that build up into something much bigger and this book shows what a difference the tiny steps make. What it doesn’t address is just how hard it is to build up enough tiny steps to achieve real change and that can be demoralising if you haven’t made your peace with that to start with. The thing that you do may only be a drop in the ocean, but if there were no drops there’d be no oceans.

Still, being difficult to the point of near impossibility is no reason not to do something. So, go read the book, be reminded how much there is to change and see if you’re motivated to act.


I have a new blogging project – MicroRebellions.

It was inspired by the confluence of two things:
1. A quote from Albert Camus “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I don’t think I can immediately become absolutely free, but I can make small acts of rebellion all the time that might lead me to freedom one day.
2. The Microaggressions Project. Proof of the power of the smallest act of resistance.

Tumblr seemed the best way to collect pictures, quotes, videos and text together to inspire and record my MicroRebellions. And to let other people join in with me.

Fat is a Feminist Issue

Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach is one of those books I should have read a long time ago, but didn’t get around to. It’s an experience akin to reading The Lord of the Rings, in that I’ve read lots of things derived from it so it seems quite familiar.

The central premise is that women’s relationship with their bodies is shaped by their experience of living in a male dominated society in which they are valued primarily for appearance. She is mainly talking about women living in rich, western countries, and acknowledges that she is not expressing a universal experience. Much of women’s energy centres around attempts to meet the beauty standard, which is currently to be very thin.

This has a number of effects including that women have disordered eating patterns and perceptions of their bodies. In terms of eating, if you have spent your life eating according to a diet plan, then eating when you’re hungry is not something you may be used to. The book talks about the associations women have with being fat or thin and both states of being have positive and negative connotations.

Much of this book is excellent. One thing that undermines the good stuff is that Orbach continually asserts that by learning to eat intuitively women will lose weight. This reinforces the message that losing weight is desirable rather than supporting the message that a healthy relationship with your body is more important than what it looks like.

If you’re interested in body issues and eating disorders this is essential reading.

Babel Tower

One of my top ten books is Possession by A. S. Byatt and so it stands to reason that I would like other books by the same author. I read Angels and Insects and wasn’t blown away. I bought Babel Tower and it has sat on my bookshelf for ten years. Part of the reason I haven’t read it is that it is a hardback and is 615 pages. The other part is that I was worried I wouldn’t like it. Oh, how wrong I was.

On the surface it is the story of Frederica Potter, a woman who was a Cambridge graduate in the early 1960s, then her sister died and while she was grieving she married an inappropriate man. At the start of Babel Tower Frederica has a two year old and is realising that she made a mistake in her marriage. When she runs into an old friend it accelerates this realisation. The cracks in her marriage widen and her husband becomes extremely jealous and violent. After he hits her with an axe, she leaves and begins a life in London.

There Frederica renews old friendships and makes new ones, including one with the author of a book which is tried under the Obscenity Act. At the same time, Frederica starts divorce proceedings. What the book is really about is the terrible position and treatment of women in the 1960s and it is very feminist. It is also about the nature of art and about obscenity, morality and freedom of expression.

The quality of the writing is astonishing. It was so rich and complex without ever becoming florid. I wish I could write like this. On every page I was in awe. It is the third in a series of four and, of course, I haven’t read any of the others but it easily stands on its own. Byatt is a literary writer who is gripping, tense and utterly absorbing. This was amazing and I could barely put it down. You should definitely read it.