Not-too-distant Dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale – by Margaret Atwood

Classic Literature, Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance

Security and liberty. One is often sacrificed for the other. What measures, what infringements on our liberty would we accept to ensure our security – from terrorist attacks, poverty, unemployment, ideas that we disagree with – is sustained?

The Handmaid’s Tale is an answer. Gilead, the envisaged future of America, initially seems alien from our society; as the book progresses, however, disturbing similarities emerge.

Women are property, kept in the home as either elite wives, ‘Martha’s’ who do the household chores, or handmaids who must produce offspring. Offred is the handmaid in the book’s title, and the book is her story. She vividly describes her life before, during and after becoming a handmaid: her daughter and husband whom she loves and misses painfully; her traumatic yet nostalgic time in the ‘Red Center’ where the ‘Aunts’ (pious women who uphold the regime) labored to inculcate her with the virtues of being a handmaid; her hyper-controlled, mundane life serving her assigned family.

I developed a morbid fascination with Offred’s miserable life (Atwood’s writing is captivating and vivid). Often as Offred speaks to the reader, her narrative devolves into random trains of thought, revealing her mental instability and loneliness. Initially, for the cause of safety from terrorism, people sacrificed their liberties; in time, the authorities expropriated them and became a greater threat than the official fear of terrorism. The repression took two forms: against society as a whole, and much more so against women in society. Atwood unfolds the profound links between Gilead and our world gradually, until the Tale’s glaring warning can no longer be ignored.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

In fact, the similarity is more poignant than even Atwood suggests, as Egyptian-American activist and author Mona Eltahawy describes in her NYT Op-Ed (here). In it she comments on the similarity between Saudi women’s lives and the lives of women in Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale remains ever-relevant, thanks not only to its presence in modern-day patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia’s but also to the popular Hulu series based off the book.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

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Buy on Amazon (US)

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Another Hunger Games? The Selected – by Kiera Cass

Dystopian, Romance

The Selected, a dystopian YA romance, sounds anything but unique. Lovable, grounded female lead? Check. Two attractive love interests? Check. A protagonist who gains fame and opportunity by chance, yet wants neither? Check. Its similarities with The Hunger Games are unnumbered – I felt like I’d read parts of it before. Yet despite all of these things, I powered through it at break-neck speed: I was desperate to know what would happen, even though the plot was fairly predictable; I couldn’t help myself loving it, sucked into the fandom like so many others.

Set in the future United States, The Selection is about America, who works as a musician, born into a family of artists with low social status. The book opens soon after a notice has been sent out to the teenaged girls of Illéa (their country), inviting them to sign up to a competition, the Selection, in the hopes of winning the heart of Prince Maxon, and being made his wife and Queen. 35 girls are chosen – ostensibly randomly – to live in the palace, where they will meet the prince and train to become a member of the aristocracy. However, America might be the only girl in the country who has no interest in being one of the Selected – in fact, it’s her worst nightmare, because it would mean leaving her secret love Aspen; after a series of unexpected events, she meets Prince Maxon, and all of her certainties disintegrate.

I’ll be the first to admit that the book doesn’t sound especially promising from the synopsis, and there’s no question that the plot is often predictable, and the characters two-dimensional. As I’ve said, the book definitely has its problems, but – not to be condescending – you kind of expect these things from a YA book. As I approached it with such low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised: the characters were more realistic, the plot was more interesting, and the setting better established than I had hoped; what really made the book was that it exceeded my expectations. So what if it’s not the next War & Peace? It’s not meant to be! It’s a fun, enjoyable YA book that offers an entertaining, easy-to-relate-to escape from life; it does its job well!

Regarding its likeness to The Hunger Games, it’s important to point out that, although the worlds and plots are alike, they are portrayed in different lights and from contrasting perspectives. America isn’t looking to lead a rebellion – in fact, she fears the rebels and is perplexed as to what they’re angry about (despite being a slave to the country’s merciless caste system). Unlike the famed Katniss, The Selection‘s protagonist is only interested in love, and perhaps charity – they’re all she knows.

I commend this book to anyone who loves a good dystopian YA, especially The Hunger Games – but with plenty of romance and no gruesome fighting. It’s short, fairly fast-paced and very easy to read; I don’t suggest it to those who don’t like YA books, or those which are ‘plot-based’ (rather than ‘writing-based’: merited for their good writing, not an interesting plot).

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA (6)

Writing: AAAAA (5)

Pace: Medium/Fast

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Harper Lee’s New Book: Go Set A Watchman

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Legal Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding book. Exquisitely written, it is a book that saddens and yet heartens concurrently, leaving a warm, contented feeling, despite its less-than-happy ending for underdog Tom Robinson. However, the book’s uplifting effect on the reader comes at the expense of its realism: it touches on, yet mostly leaves unresolved, the issue of racism.

Go Set a Watchman, conversely, attempts to tackle racism; to explain it. Set 20 years after To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman is again narrated by Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, at the age of twenty-six. She’s returning home from New York to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set amidst the civil rights movement and the political unrest transpiring in the South, Jean Louise’s routine visit becomes regrettable when she learns jarring realities about her family, the town and the people she loves. Scout continues her narrative – written before, yet set after Mockingbird – resolute in her sense of right and wrong. She discovers to her horror that her father – until then revered as her beacon of morality – holds the same bigoted views that he had seemed to castigate. As Jean Louise loses grasp of her values, and assumed truths, she looks to her past for signs of what she had been blind to all along: that her father was not the ‘perfect’ person she thought he was.

Despite its mixed reviews and reactions, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. It’s a well-needed ‘wake-up call’ from the dream-like, simplistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird; Scout matures, and Watchman is the grown-up, ‘real’ story. It is said that much of To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of Lee’s editor, who knew that a more fantastical book based on the same story would sell better than a more ‘realistic’ one: perhaps he realised that people like reading something that makes them feel better about themselves. Who can say if this rumour is true, but I do think that the books seem completely different: Watchman is less a sequel, and more an elaboration on Mockingbird.

As the book progresses, Jean Louise’s disturbed and confused reaction to the news that her family is, in some ways, just like every other in Maycomb (their town), is an empathetic coming-of-age disillusionment with the world; disenchantment with childhood role models that many readers – myself included – could remember themselves feeling, despite different circumstances. Go Set a Watchman tries to make sense, to portray the experience of living in a small town in the South; it explains how hard it was to speak up, and stand up for what they think is right. Without excusing their guilt or sense of wrongdoing, it explores the intent behind their actions: it is natural to oppose political change. The book offers a comprehensible perspective of the South.

Watchman failed to explain conclusively the South’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement – but perhaps this was intended: there is no simple, ‘correct’ answer; rather, one can only presume their mind-sets. This is a great book that offers context, depth and nuance to a beloved classic.

I commend this book to all, but particularly if you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. You would enjoy both of these books if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement in America, from the viewpoint of a liberal, white Southern young woman. It’s a little slow-paced, because of all the flashbacks, but hardly hard to read. In fact, it’s incredibly readable, especially for the sequel to a classic.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

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The Help – By Kathryn Stockett

Historical Fiction

The Help, set in the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi, recounts the lives of three women: Skeeter Phelan, an aspiring writer, Aibileen, a caring, loving maid who is raising her 17th white child, and Minny, an angry, outspoken maid who is fired for giving her employer a piece of her mind. Skeeter decides to write a highly controversial book that accounts the lives of maids in Jackson, describing their female bosses, for better or for worse. Aibileen is the first of the maids to agree to tell her story to Skeeter. She helps her in the making of the book, and is the driving force in encouraging the other maids to write about their lives. Minny is stubborn at first, but later also agrees to tell Skeeter her story for the book, ‘Help’.

This book is about segregation in the South, which is a subject of much discussion. I found Stockett’s interpretation of this topic interesting, relatable and easy to read, however I also realize that she has naively softened the facts, making the story a dramatized fairy tale, almost, which doesn’t really respect what actually happened. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that to a certain extent this must be done to make it a readable, appealing book. Although I relate to Skeeter as an aspiring writer and book fanatic, Minny and Aibileen were portrayed in more depth and were stronger characters than Skeeter. I loved how The Help is written in dated, Southern slang.

This book is good for people who are interested in segregation in the South, but want to learn about it in an easy and accessible way. It’s good for people who like a fairly slow-paced book that is written in different points of views. This book is not good for people who want to learn about this subject in a strictly factual, historical way. I would recommend The Help for teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow