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The Power

You must read this book. This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

The Power by Naomi Alderman explores the nature and dynamics of power. Women have evolved the power to deliver excruciating and fatal pain through their hands, and men have not. Using four different characters whose lives eventually intersect, Alderman explores what it means when the tables turn. When I started reading the book, I thought I knew what Alderman was saying with her story. Women start waking up to their power and the women whose stories Alderman tells are all victims of the ones who previously had the power: trafficked women; women in relationships with violent men; girls growing up with fathers that rape them; successful career women undermined by sexist bosses and co-workers. Examples of things that happen to women everyday.

It’s a relatively short book and it is impressive in the number of ways it explores its theme. It contrasts how different political systems react to the emergence of the power and the way men try to fight it – repressive regimes using violence and democratic regimes using manipulation and psychological control. The book looks at religious power and how it is used, and also personal power and what it means.

It was not long before I realised that the point being made is actually much more complex than it appears on the surface, and I realised I didn’t know what the message was. The women in power do unspeakable things to men without power; again, things done by the powerful to the powerless on a daily basis. The point is not that the status quo is fine, because if you just gender-flipped it then everything would essentially be the same. It is that we need to think much more carefully about power and who has it, and what they can do with it. Because most of us do things, even awful things, just because we can. I finished the book thinking that while Alderman had made me think very deeply about power she has done so without taking a didactic position herself. The story always remains paramount.

I enjoyed the gender-flipping of historical objects scattered throughout. I especially loved the epilogue. I won’t spoil it, but I have had that conversation so many frustrating times and I loved what she did with it. I would have liked a bit more exploration of queerness in the book. Alderman touches on girls born without the power and what that means for them, and on boys who have it, and there are illusions to same-sex relationships, and I would have liked to see that more fully developed. On the whole, this is an awesome and important book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Boy

I have a new morning routine, inspired by the Miracle Morning, which involves spending 25 minutes reading while having breakfast before I leave for work. Most of my reading is done on the train which means that I don’t like to carry any book too heavy or large. I have a stash of books that I’ve been wanting to read but not getting to because I don’t read that much at home. There are some lovely art books, some lengthy histories, and some epic sagas. Now I have my morning reading routine I can start to work through them.

One of those lovely art books is The Boy by Germaine Greer. It explores the young male nude as a subject of art throughout history. The conventional wisdom is that the female nude is the object drawn to be observed by the male gaze. Greer argues that this elides boys as an object and ignores women as both artists and patrons of art. It focuses on young males, boys rather than men, which were historically much more studied from real life, whereas female nudes were constructed from ideal proportions.

I really enjoyed it. I find art history a little hard going, mainly because I have scant knowledge to build on, but the pictures are wonderful to look at. I learnt something and started my days with some beautiful images.

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.

MicroRebellions

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.