Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “margaret atwood”

CommanderStrikeher’s #CBR4 Review #48: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Somehow, I had never even heard of this book until last year’s Cannonball Read.  The premise is intriguing.  In the not-too-distant future, a Puritanical religious group has overthrown the United States and formed the Republic of Gilead.  Women are no longer allowed to read, and are divided into classes based on their ability to breed.  The main character, Offred, is a Handmaid.  Basically she is the mistress of a powerful Commander and once a month she has to have sex with him while laying in the arms of his wife.  If a child is born, the Commander and his wife will keep it, and she will be sent to a new household and attempt to do it again. Sex is strictly for procreation.  There is no romance, and certainly no illicit love affairs.  There are public executions, and the bodies of priests, nuns, and doctors are left to rot along the town walls.

Offred finds a carving inside her closet that was left by the previous Handmaid.  It says, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which means “Don’t let the bastards get you down”.  The previous Handmaid must not have heeded her own advice, because she hung herself.  This story is bleak, but it is engrossing.  I couldn’t put this one down.  This one is a classic for a reason.

I read a lot of post-apocalyptic or dystopian books this year: Mockingjay, World War Z and Robopocalypse.  However, this was by far the most terrifying.  In a society where women who have been raped are forced to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds to get an abortion, or doctors have the right to not tell the mother if her pregnancy may kill her, this story doesn’t seem too farfetched.

5/5 Stars

Mrs Smith Reads The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, #CBR4, Review #24

“There is more than one kind of freedom. In the days of anarchy, it was ‘freedom to.’ Now, you’re being given ‘freedom from.’ Don’t underrate it.”
—The Handmaid’s Tale

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, it was just after it was published in the mid-1980s. Thinking back, I remember the book being a quick read, with an interesting take on a dystopian future scenario which depicted a fundamentalist Christian political resurgence born out of the decadent, free-wheeling sexual and economic liberation of the late 20th century. In the story, women are reduced to chattel and are forced into marriage, servitude or sexual slavery by the Commanders of the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States of America. Education and reading are forbidden, heretics are executed and hung on a wall for all to see, women have no rights and can’t own property and the all-seeing eye of the government is based on fundamentalist, old testament “values” that preserve male superiority and control. I was in my early 20s and proud to have been an active participant in a decade of progress in women’s rights, the firm cementing of women’s choice in health care decisions, growing women’s employment and financial independence (even though it was the middle of the Reagan-era). I thought the allegory made for a good read, but seemed a bit far-fetched.

Hearing recently that two local women got 2000+ people to sign a petition to remove The Handmaid’s Tale (and others) from the suggested (not required) Summer reading list for Senior AP English students at my son’s high school, claiming that it “denigrates Christianity” and contains “pornography,” I was a bit surprised. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I don’t remember anything about that book being even remotely steamy.” I did remember the repressive, puritanical regime and at the time I first read the book, I thought it pushed the envelope of possibility. Thinking about it again, in light of the most recent attempts at reigniting the so-called “culture wars,” in particular this small skirmish here in my own neighborhood, I wondered how I would feel about it today. So, I did what too often isn’t done in these situations: I downloaded a copy from the library to my Kindle and gave it a re-read.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Baxlala’s #CBR4 Review #29: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Oh, hey, I finished this about a million years ago and then forgot to write about it, which has pretty much been the case for the past, oh, FOREVER.

Anyway, have you guys read this book? Because you should. Especially if you like dystopian novels and WHO DOESN’T, amiright? Yes, I’m right.

I first read this book before I even knew what dystopia meant and have read it about once a year since. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I find something comforting about reading stories in which really fucked up shit happens to people in the near or not-so-near future, as if by me reading it, I can STOP whatever it is from happening. Maybe that’s my superpower. YOU DON’T KNOW.

Anyway (again). The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the future, in a time of great unrest (standard). Things were getting super shitty for ladies, what with the violence and the rape and whatnot, PLUS ALSO everyone started having trouble getting knocked up, no matter how much sex they had, and the ones who DID get knocked up sometimes had monster babies (called “shredders” in the novel) because of CHEMICAL WARFARE or some junk, and so The Men In Charge decided what everyone really needed was order, in the form of a regimented system of sexytimes. And AS PER USUAL, women drew the short straw and had to live under the power of the men in their lives, called the Commanders (SERIOUSLY).

Offred, our narrator, is a Handmaid, living in the somewhat newly formed Republic of Gilead, in a home with her Commander, his Wife, a Maid, and a Cook. The Commander is the only Dude in the house (except for Nick, the Chauffeur, but he doesn’t count as a Dude because he doesn’t own any Womens yet) and is completely in charge of his harem of ladies. Only it’s not REALLY a harem because he can only have sex with his Handmaid and only at specific times and only under SUPER FUCKED UP CIRCUMSTANCES because sex is dirty and bad and degrades women and is only I REPEAT ONLY for the procreation of the species. Geez, pay attention.

Saying any more about this novel would rob you of the experience of reading it and I just won’t be party to that kind of spoilertude. But I cannot recommend The Handmaid’s Tale enough. I mean, I’ve read it at least 15 times and I just keep reading it because I NEVER WANT IT TO BE OVER. That’s how awesome it is.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is terrifying, but it’s like…a good terrifying? Where you’re happy that you’re not living in that world? I guess? Just read this? Please?

Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 36: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Amazon description: “The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners–a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life–has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.

Have others survived? Ren’s bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers…

Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo’hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can’t stay locked away…”

(This is going to be kind of a lazy review — sorry.) Like Oryx and Crake, I had a bit of trouble with this one. Not so much with the story or the book itself, I suppose, but the way that Atwood (and many reviewers) seem to think that this world is an inevitability. I suppose only time will tell if I’m the one that’s naive here, but I find all of the “a world so similar to our own” rhetoric around these two books a bit overdramatic and tinfoil-hat-y. I mean, sure, genetic engineering and gene-splicing exist, but not like this. There are elements of truth and feasibility, but I don’t think we are depraved enough collectively to move in the direction portrayed in these novels. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyway, story-wise, I liked this one more than Oryx and Crake, mostly because I liked the narrators in The Year of the Flood a lot better than I liked Jimmy/Snowman in Oryx and Crake. What can I say — Toby and Ren’s backstories of survival and coping with adversity were a lot more interesting than Jimmy’s “Woe is me, my best friend is smarter than me and I’m in love with a manic pixie dream former child prostitute” memoir. The narrative gets a little jumpy, as the characters’ backstories catch up to the present, and the switches between character POVs are broken up by God’s Gardener sermons and hymns, which I found a little trite and tiring. Overall though, it was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite books this year.

ElCicco#CBR4 Review#36: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a novel based on a real double murder that occurred in Toronto in the 1850s. Grace Marks was a 15 year-old servant in household of Mr. Kinnear. He and his mistress Nancy, also a servant, were found dead in the cellar. Grace and the stablehand James McDermott had gone missing and shortly afterward were found just over the border in the U.S. with Kinnear’s and Nancy’s belongings. They were apprehended and returned to Toronto for trial, which resulted in both being found guilty. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to death but had her sentence reduced to life in prison. Atwood imagines Grace’s history and what might have really happened. The narrative is relayed through characters’ reflections and letters as Dr. Simon Jordan tries to uncover Grace’s lost  memories. Is she innocent or a manipulative seductress? Benevolent church groups working on her behalf retain Dr. Jordan, who uses the latest methods, to try to uncover her memory of the murders, and with any luck, secure her pardon.

Atwood did a lot of research on the period and her characters, particularly the attitudes toward women and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She includes excerpts from the trial as covered by newspapers and commentaries by philanthropists and specialists who observed and interviewed Grace. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, to introduce discussions of mesmerism, hypnotism, and current (for that time period) interventions for dealing with inmates in penitentiaries and asylums. Grace blacked out during key moments of the murders, and Dr. Simon hopes to spark her memory by using association. In some rather humorous moments, he brings in a series of root vegetables, which would be stored in a cellar, to make her think of the murders. “According to his theories, the right object ought to evoke a chain of disturbing associations in her..,” but “… all he’s got out of her has been a series of cookery methods.”

Dr. Jordan also presents uncomfortable ideas and attitudes about women. His thoughts regarding Grace, his landlady and a servant named Dora are sometimes disturbing and misogynistic, which he himself recognizes. He reflects that, “The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend — a madman, say — lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self-restraint.” Nonetheless, he, Kinnear and other men in authority frequently abuse their position vis-a-vis women without sensing their own barbarousness. Grace sees things more realistically: “Men such as [Dr. Jordan] do not have to clean up messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.”

Atwood’s take on what might have really happened in the murders has sort of a gothic twist to it, but given the novel’s focus on psychological matters, it seemed fitting. The novel provides much to discuss in a reading group. I’ve only touched on a few things here, but certainly religion and philanthropy, crime and punishment, relationships between rich and poor, men and women and amongst women are all themes that recur throughout the novel. And Atwood is an outstanding writer, creating complex characters and using poetry, popular songs and the names of quilting patterns to frame each chapter. A really wonderful book!

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #42 The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I was hesitant to pick up another Margaret Atwood book after reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  I was told it was a dystopia, not a horror story.  Every time a new sound bite makes the rounds on the internet, be it about my rights or birth control or what have you, I started to wonder if I could build a feminist shelter and survive in there while the rest of the world turns into Gilead.

Luckily, The Blind Assassin is not a scary view into the future, although Atwood still uses feminist themes in the book.  The Blind Assassin mostly takes place between WWI and WII in Canada.  Iris and Laura Chase are the daughters of a wealthy button manufacturer.  After their mother died, Iris and Laura were mostly left to their own devices, with only the housekeeper keeping them in check.  Laura is an odd child; she is very literal and seems very detached from reality.  As the girls grow up, the Depression sets in and the button factory takes a hit.  The owner of a rival company makes a deal with the Chase patriarch – Iris in exchange for saving the company.  Around this time, Laura, a teenager now, falls for a college age anarchist, Alex.  The button factory burns to a crisp and blame falls on Alex.  Iris and Laura hide him out in the attic until he can get out of town.

A few days after WWII ends, Laura kills herself.  She is remembered for her book, published posthumously, called The Blind Assassin.  The Blind Assassin is a story-within-a-story, which makes the actual book called The Blind Assassin a story-within-a-story-within-a-story.  The fictional Blind Assassin is the story of a high society woman carrying on an affair with a man on the run from the law.  The man writes pulp science fiction for cash and begins to tell her a story of a town on another planet.

The feminist themes are subtler in The Blind Assassin compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, but they are still present.  The biggest theme is the idea of freedom.  Iris believes herself to be free, even though her new husband and sister-in-law control almost all aspects of her life.  She believes herself to be free because they will never be ever to control her mind.  This illusion of freedom shatters when Iris attempts to exert her believed freedom.  This passive “freedom” gives Iris a sense of autonomy, but it really works to keep her in control of her husband and sister-in-law.

TheFatling’s #CBR4 Review #16: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I didn’t like The Year of the Flood quite as much as I liked Oryx and Crake, but it’s an excellent second book for Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy (she’s writing the third right now, as she informed CBR and myself on Twitter.  Swoon).  I do appreciate that rather than a straight sequel, Atwood chose to tell stories that run concurrent with the events of Oryx and Crake.  This time there are two POV characters: Toby, a reluctant member of the God’s Gardeners faith/ecoactivist group, and Ren, and exotic dancer who grew up in the same God’s Gardener group that Toby belonged to.  The action here takes place largely in the near-future pleeblands, economically depressed communities that buttress North America’s hermetically sealed “compounds” reserved for the rich and their scientific research teams.

Both Crake/Glenn and Snowman/Jimmy from the first novel show up periodically throughout the story, but this one belongs to the women.  Atwood expands on the themes of desensitizing sexual commodification she broached in Oryx and Crake by exploring Toby’s victimization at the hands of a sadistic employer and the way the specter of her rape impacts her life.  Saddled with a pretty horrific mother who joined the God’s Gardeners to be with her lover, Ren grows into adulthood with a split consciousness—aware of the material excesses of her world, and yet disconnected from the faith that more or less raised her.  Atwood handles the idea of sexual victimization gently and with pathos—there are no squicky, highly detailed rape scenes that could be confused with titillation, and when Ren chooses to become a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club, neither she nor Atwood think she has anything to apologize for.


TheFatling’s #CBR4 Review #15: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

I’m going to wax philosophical here.  This wasn’t my favorite Atwood book (it was really just a stopgap solution while I waited for The Year of the Flood to arrive at my library), but I so enjoyed the experience of reading it that my lack of enthusiasm for the content didn’t negatively affect my overall view of the book.

In part, it’s just an extension of my lifelong obsession with words.  As a kid, I’d read pretty much anything that was within reach.  I’ve become a bit more discerning as I’ve gotten older, but in general, the rule still stands that if it can be read, I will read it.


Amanda6′s #CBR4 Review 18: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Ah, this one was so good, you guys!

Thank you Amazon: A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most powerful and most widely read novels of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules.

Margaret Atwood has said of this book, initially published in 1985, that she did not include anything that wasn’t happening somewhere in the world. And it’s the truth; we only need recent memories and present knowledge of current events to connect Atwood’s details to their inspiration. It’s therefore fascinating how criticism of this novel often claims that the ideas here are too radical, and that this would never happen, and that putting forth these ideas is dangerous and intellectually dishonest. I don’t have much of a desire to get into political specifics here in a book review, but in light of such criticism, it becomes even more remarkable how some of the liberties lost in The Handmaid’s Tale (again: published in 1985) seem plucked right out of Supreme Court discussions from 2012. Have we really progressed so little? Are we regressing?

Putting aside feminist themes for a moment, I also want to talk a little bit about Atwood’s writing and voice, which are both at their very strongest in this novel. The struggle of her protagonist, Offred, felt immediately urgent and engrossing, and her inner dialogue did honestly evoke the turmoil, anger, numbness, and myriad other emotions that a woman would feel when she experiences what Offred has endured. The strength of the writing and story were perfectly matched here; The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling, well paced, and full of characters who, even if we only meet them for a short time, are treated with respect and given humanity.

(And now I’m giggling a little to myself, because if my review is to be believed, if we treated each other like Atwood treats her characters, The Handmaid’s Tale probably wouldn’t ring so true as a cautionary tale!)

TheFatling’s #CBR4 Review #14: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, despite the fact that I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.  It’s rare to come across a writer who can build worlds and characters equally well, and her lyrical writing style is absolutely gorgeous.  Every time I read one of Atwood’s novels, I am deeply affected, and Oryx and Crake is no exception.

Set in the post-apocalyptic near future, narrator Snowman eases the reader into the new normal—salvaging for food, water, and shelter in the absence of other humans, with only the strange, alien Children of Crake for company.  In flashbacks, Snowman recalls how the world came to be in its present state, going back to his childhood as “Jimmy,” his close friendship with scientific wunderkind Crake, and their mutual obsession with a young girl they once spotted on a pornographic website.  Atwood does a really admirable job of extrapolating the online entertainment and technology of the early aughts (when the book was written) into a nasty, amoral web of consumer exploitation that consumes the entirety of North America (and, we are to understand, the world at large).

I ripped through this book in about four hours total.  It’s a really compelling read, and Atwood manages to keep the tension in both the past and present storylines ratcheted up high throughout, and Snowman’s overall arc is very well done.  He changes gradually and without self-awareness, which is very refreshing.  I also really liked Atwood’s handling of a male protagonist, since I’ve only read her female protagonists.  Her voice is believable as a man’s, but is also a unique take on the male perspective.  I’m really looking forward to reading Atwood’s 2009 followup, The Year of the Flood, as soon as I can get my hands on it.

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