Quick review: The Handmaid’s Tale (book)

In this review, I am talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel written by Margaret Artwood and published in 1985, in which Offred, a young handmaid, is sent to a family to be the surrogate womb of a couple that can’t carry, in a society where women have no right anymore.

The Handmaid’s Tale is getting more popular now thanks to the recent Hulu series, but since I don’t subscribe to Hulu, I decided to read the novel instead. Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, the Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in the nation of Gilead, a post-USA theonomic state that is run through a very literal application of the bible. Basically the utopia of white christian (male) supremacists. In this wonderful new country, we follow Offred, who has fallen really low in the social hierarchy, first because she is a woman, and then because she tried to escape this magnificent paradise. The really wise men in power probably didn’t understand why on earth (which is flat obviously) she’d want to do that, so they placed her in the very charitable position of being the surrogate womb of an unlucky couple who can’t have kids, and that way, maybe God will forgive her for her sins. Or else she’s a useless eater, and she would get the rope treatment, 3rd Reich style.

It’s not a story of great heroes. It’s a story of survival and resilience. It’s the story of the people who end up living in a despotic government and keep their head down, accepting every humiliation hoping that some day they will see brighter days. People are not all ready to fight. Here, the resistants seem to exist, maybe, but they are in the background, while Offred is the narrator. It’s her story, her struggle to stay alive until she can find a way out. She tells it from the beginning: she intends to survive. She will do everything she’s asked to do, because she has no other choice. She tried her luck once and she was lucky she wasn’t executed or sent to a labour camp, thanks to being able to carry a child, so she will carry one again, for someone else, and maybe have a better opportunity later. But what opportunity? That’s the biggest question mark. She doesn’t know what would become of her after she gives them a child, especially since it’s the beginning of the new government and they don’t really have thorough regulations on the matter. But she only have hopes, hope that her daughter is fine, hope that maybe her husband has survived, and that’s the only thing that keeps her going.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a really great and frightening story. It’s great because the story is so well crafted that it seems all so plausible. And it’s frightening because, well, it seems so plausible, especially when we hear what some US officials say nowadays. This tale shows us what’s the worse that could happen if we let evangelists and christian extremists run a country, and the thought I couldn’t get out of my head all the time I was reading was that in this novel, the government falls after a coup d’état, but in my opinion this kind of situation is more likely to happen without a civil war. With years and years of carefully escalated despotism, until the time it becomes impossible to stop it without a fight, a theocratic government could be installed without a real struggle. Maybe they didn’t think that it was plausible back in the 80’s. After all, the only example they had of a new theocratic government was Iran, and it had to go through a violent revolution to put it in place, so I can imagine they didn’t think people would willingly vote for the same person who would gleefully take that right to vote away from them, even though it happened before.

I can only recommend this novel. It’s a cautionary tale in the same vein as 1984 and deserve the same appreciation, while we are still allowed to read.

Quick review: Seveneves (Neil Stephenson)

In this review, I talk about Seveneves, a sci-fi novel by Neil Stephenson, about a cataclysm that makes humanity finds its survival in orbit, waiting to colonise the Earth again. Great story, burdened by too much technical jargon and an abrupt end that it’s just there begging to be continued.

I took time before writing this review. I was wondering if I was going to do it at all. See, I don’t have much time to talk about everything I read or watch, so I try to focus on the works that I really liked, that I can recommend. But I really don’t know what to think about Seveneves. It was so different from what I expected that I still don’t really know if I like it or not. It took me several months to make it to the end⁽¹⁾, just because I really didn’t see if there would be an end at all. And in a sense, there wasn’t.

The back cover says that it’s the story of people who lived in space for several thousands years while Earth recovered from a catastrophe, and were then trying to make it back to the surface. That sounded really interesting. Maybe they didn’t know, or didn’t remember, what happened to Earth and were about to find out while they make the first settlements.

But that’s actually not what it talks about. It starts now when the catastrophe happens, and humanity have two years to find a solutions to send as many people they can to orbit before Earth’s surface gets utterly destroyed by a several-thousand-year moon rain⁽²⁾. And that’s two thirds of the novel. The story advertised is only the last third, and feels so abrupt that it seems like there should be another book following. In some way, this end looks like the end of the Cryptonomicon, where the characters find the treasure and scene. But at least the “quest” of the heroes was finished. In Seveneves, they have just met a new civilization and it’s the conclusion? Seriously? I want to know more. How the fuck did they survive? It’s not explained. I want to know that. Also, right before the meeting, they were that close to going into war with their arch-enemies. How does that go? Is it over? Do they make peace?

I personally find that disappointing. Building up the suspense for 600 hundred pages, to end up on a cliffhanger. But if there is something you can’t take from Neil Stephenson, it’s that he really does his homework. And he really wants to show it off too. At some point it’s an overdose of technical details that are really hard to picture because no such devices or technologies currently exist. So it’s sometimes nauseous and other times plain boring, turning pages of technical details before any action happens… And I get it, it’s hard sci-fi, but does it have to be so much detailed to be categorised as such? If the technical side makes sense, then it’s hard sci-fi, whether it’s explained down to the atom or just enough to understand the concept.

And I really feel sad about this situation, because it’s a very good story but hundred of pages are just dedicated to technical jargon in a level of details that has little to no effect on the actual story. It’s just there for the author to show that he’s not making shit up⁽³⁾, when he could instead focus on detailing some element of story or characters.

So in the end, I really enjoyed the story. It’s really well thought of, with a nice bunch of well-explored characters, but all this is burdened by technical details that tend to make the book more boring than interesting. And the story’s end is so abrupt I’m still wondering if I wasn’t missing another hundred pages.

 

⁽¹⁾ It’s a 850-page novel, but still.

⁽²⁾ They call it the “Hard Rain”. Basically, an unknown event breaks the Moon down into several parts, that subsequently break down into smaller and smaller parts through collision until a million rocks surround the Earth and end up falling on the surface, burning everything. Shiny!

⁽³⁾ Well, he is making shit up though, since it’s science-fiction. It’s just a very-well-researched shit.

Manga review: The Bride Was a Boy

Follow up on my manga review, here I talk about The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii, who tells us how she managed to find a boyfriend and marry him after she was raised as a boy. All the while explaining what a gender transition is.

As mentioned in my previous article, I will be dedicating a full page on The Bride Was a Boy, a Japanese comic book about a transgender woman, Chii (the author) who is finally getting married, despite all the obstacles that she had to overcome to make it possible. Obviously, being a transgender woman, I deeply relate to the author, even though I live in a country where such barriers don’t exist. We’ll get to that in a moment.

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At first, I was surprised by the title. “The Bride was a Boy” seemed like a weird way to make people understand that transgender women are women and where not actually boys, and I was genuinely scared that it would just make fun of us. But the author clears that up in the very first page: “The Bride was a Boy” is an oversimplification or, as she says “I was a boy, or at least, I looked like one”, and goes on to describe how her life unfolded from growing up as a boy in the eyes of society.

It is a personal account, and like any other personal account (see my review of First Year Out, by Sabrina Symington), the experience differs greatly from person to person. Chii makes a good case of pointing that out. Which is where her manga isn’t just a nice and funny account of a person’s life,

IT IS A PUBLIC SERVICE!

And I don’t mean it lightly. It’s very rare to read an author who wants to be as inclusive and comprehensive as it can, going beyond their own experience. To go into this, we need to look at the structure of the book. The story is divided in 9 chapters, each talking about a significant period in her life. Some overlap (hormone therapy and legal gender change, for example), but overall, it’s mostly chronological. And where this work isn’t just a life story and becomes actually educational, it’s in the fact that between every chapter, Chii explains a transition step or a an issue that can’t put into images because they are quite complex and she wants to make sure it is well understood by anyone who read it.

And it’s very accurate. Where the comic strips tell her life, the educational texts go into a lot of educational details (1), that are still explained in such a simple way anyone will understand, including, and especially, children. She also acknowledge where she lacks the knowledge to explain further, especially when something differs between countries. The most obvious example is the legal name change. She explains how it’s done in Japan, but she can’t possibly tell how other countries deal with it, since there is no two countries that share the same laws and regulations on the matter. But she explains all the important notions necessary to understand the situation for trans people, and she even cites scientific sources at the end of the book.

Finally, I should talk a bit about the art and the tone in itself, because not only it is a great romance in a super cute style,

IT’S ALSO SUPER FUNNY!

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The back cover cracked me up. That’s totally the kind of cute humour the story is full of.

It’s super refreshing. It is a love story that ends well about a transgender woman who gets married with her quirky and funny boyfriend who never at any point doubted she was a woman. Let me say that again.

IT’S A STORY ABOUT A TRANSGENDER WOMAN WHO LIVES A HAPPY LIFE.

And we need that. We need stories where it’s not just about being harassed, assaulted or killed, but where it is possible to actually be happy when and after transitioning. That we can have the same things than any other people, that it’s normal, and that no one comes to take it from us because they don’t like the idea of us.

So, I think you understand now that I totally recommend this book. Read it, give it to your friends and family, because it’s really a comic book for everyone. No question about it. Why are you even still here?

 

(1) She even go as far as talking about the DSM and the difference between Gender Identity Disorder and Gender Dysphoria, and why now GD is preferred by the scientific society but Japan still uses GID. She also points out that any information regarding medical regulation and laws on gender change are true in 2016 when the book is released but may change later.

Quick review of queer mangas

Review of two book: Claudine, a 1978 manga about a transgender man facing bullying; and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, the true account of a young homosexual woman who had to face depression and social expectations.

After I saw a post on twitter about Claudine, a Japanese comic book about a transgender man that was supposedly very good (for its time), I set out to buy it, and added in my shopping cart a couple of other mangas dealing with LGBT issues: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, and The Bride Was a Boy.

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So here are the reviews in the reading order.

Claudine, by Ryoko Ikeda:

Claudine is by far the weakest of the three. I was expecting a very powerful art work about trans issues, but instead, I got shallow characters, empty plot and a poor understanding of the subject. Now, it was made in 1978, and it is probably the reflection of the stereotypes of that time, but there are points in this book that make it really not interesting as a story.

And the biggest problem is the main character. He has no other definition than being transgender. We don’t know anything about him. The story is told from the accounts of his psychiatrist who, you’d think would talk about more things than just his struggle with gender identity. But we never know a single thing about Claudine but that she is from a rich family. I think it kills the story entirely, because it is impossible to relate to a character who’s just an empty shell. And the psychiatrist, who is ultimately the voice of the author, kills the whole open-mindedness by saying a very transphobic “Even a true man couldn’t love a woman so utterly” (1).

Then, the plot revolves almost uniquely around a girl who is in love with Claudine and sets out to sabotage every single relationship he (Claudine) has with other girls. And the whole story is like that. Claudine is rather passive. Things happen to her, it’s all about how people react to her, but not much how she reacts. She is like the MacGuffin of her own story.

I can’t really talk about the art form, because I am not used to the manga style, but I was surprised that Claudine was drawn in a very different style than the other characters. Maybe the author wanted him to stand out from the crowd, but for me, it just reinforces the MacGuffin effect, his shallowness, that he is not human, as opposed to all the other characters.

Finally, although there are some good ideas, the book, even by the 70’s standards, this story lacks character development, which was a real turn off to me. I couldn’t see a real person in Claudine, and it was a huge drawback in my opinion.

 

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Nagata Kabi:

This book is a breath of fresh air. It’s powerful, moving and relatable. It’s not a graphic novel. It’s more like an illustrated essay. Every strip is narrated by the author, who tells her own story. A story of feeling like an outcast, because she doesn’t see herself in the expectations of others. And still she tries to meet these expectations, which drives her to be even more miserable, and not knowing why.

It is a powerful tale of getting to know yourself and the cause of your sickness, instead of finding ways to ignore it or inflicting physical pain to oneself to know why it hurts. It touched so close to home on so many occasion, I wanted to cry during most of the book. It’s quite surely a good read to anyone who faced depression and had a hard time recognising the cause, or to people who never had such an experience but would like to understand how oppressing and terrifying this situation is.

It is well crafted; although it’s a real story, the author makes the effort of giving it a pace and a structure, and every act offers to show a real change in her mindset and relationship with her illness (2) until she understands the cause and ultimately gets better by living the life that suits her, instead of trying to get her parents approval on everything (3). Her illustrations are really doing a good work of explaining how her depression worked and how she was feeling most of the time. I think that even someone who’s never had depression and doesn’t understand the concept can have a pretty good idea at how it must feel for people who are afflicted.

And of course, it’s also a story of a lesbian woman in a country that is still very conservative on sexuality, and who ultimately tries to be herself despite social barriers. Just read it people.

 

The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii:

I have a lot to say about this one, so here is a page dedicated to this review.

 

(1) Let’s hope it’s a translation mistake, which is totally possible, seeing how disastrous the translation is. Full of typos, grammar errors, inconsistencies, I had to read some lines several times to make sure I understood.

(2) I shouldn’t have to explain that, but in case anyone misinterpret what I wrote: her illness is not her homosexuality, obviously. It’s the depression that comes from the inability to recognise that she is homosexual and trying to fit into societal expectations.

(3) Yes, I’m spoiling the end, but that was that or killing herself. So since she is writing this book, we can only assume it’s not really a surprise. The whole point of the story is to see how she navigates her depression and heals.

Quick note: First Year Out, by Sabrina Symington

Today, I want to talk about this graphic novel that hits so close to home, since it’s about gender transition. It’s called First Year Out, A Transition Story, and as the title states, it narrates about a year in the life of Lily, a trans woman, right after she comes out.

Today, I want to talk about this graphic novel that hits so close to home, since it’s about gender transition. It’s called First Year Out, A Transition Story, and as the title states, it narrates about a year in the life of Lily, a trans woman, right after she comes out.

First year out

It is important to note that it is “a” transition story. She doesn’t mean it to depict the life of every trans woman, since we all go though very different things. So this story is mostly about herself, and also includes bits of stories that happened to her friends or other trans women she knows. Personally, I relate so much to a lot of things that are depicted in this book that I felt I had written it at times. But also, it made me cry a lot, since I felt close to the main character, but also because it doesn’t shy away from the hardship of being transgender, while staying positive all along.

I really encourage every one to read First Year Out. It’s definitely an interesting story, and it shouldn’t be confined in the small circle of the LGBTQ community. It would also support this rising artist to make a name for herself, and draw more amazing graphic novels in the future. I can’t wait for the next one.

On the side note, when reading First Year Out, you can see that the drawing style gets sharper and more precise toward the end, and Sabrina would tell you it’s because the making spanned over a period of a year (or more?) and obviously the style would definitely change. Personally, I was so absorbed by the story that I didn’t notice, but I like to think that the change in style unconsciously represents the change of state of Lily as she finds peace in her life. Since I pulled the “unconscious” string, she can’t deny, right?

Quick note: The Hate U Give/Seven Seconds

Crime against African-American people in America is a hot topic, so hot that many works of fictions are made on the subject. I am no expert, far from it, but I’m always interested in filling some of the blank in my own knowledge, to complement the limited information that we get in the press.

Crime against African-American people in America is a hot topic, so hot that many works of fictions are made on the subject. I am no expert, far from it, but I’m always interested in filling some of the blank in my own knowledge, to complement the limited information that we get in the press. So recently, I have read and watched back to back two works on the subject, that are very different, both in terms of media and treatment.

Williamson Starr

The first one was The Hate U Give, first novel from Angie Thomas. It follows Starr, a high school girl who witnesses the murder of her friend by a policeman. She tries to avoid having to talk about it publicly or even give a witness account of the event until she can’t take it anymore and comes to realise that her silence is making it worse for her friend’s memory.

Then I followed with Seven Seconds, a Netflix show created by Veena Sud (The Killing US) about a cop who accidentally kills a young boy on his bike, but leaves him for dead until he is found by a passerby hours later. In this one, the story follows all the protagonists. It focuses on the prosecutor, KJ Harper, but also shows the perspective of the cops, the family and the witness.

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First, let’s focus on what make them stand apart. The first obvious thing is the type of crime: while The Hate U Give depicts a cop who shoots a kid because he thought he was armed (which becomes his line of defence), in Seven Seconds, it starts with an accident (texting and driving), but becomes a conspiracy of four officers (the first cop is helped by his colleagues) to cover the crime.

Then, Angie Thomas is so focused on her main character (who narrates the story) that every one else serves her narrative. In that regard, it takes a lot from coming-of-age stories, but on top of teenage feelings, family troubles and the discovery of adulthood, her friend is shot dead in front of her eyes. Nevertheless, the other characters are not accessory, they have deep personalities and reasonably lead Starr in her path. Veena Sud’s story is at the complete opposite. It wants to show everyone’s side. Not so you can empathise with the killer, but to understand everyone’s motivation.

Now, in the end, both stories have huge similarities. They both showcase the death of a young black boy who has links in the drug rings, which is used by the media to steer the public opinion, and the family tries to disprove it, both stories keeping the suspense on the matter until the end. They also show that cops can get out of killing black people pretty easily, even when evidence of wrongdoing is staggering, and the novel and the show keep realistic about it. The verdicts are neither over-dramatic or optimistic, they only reflect the current situation.

But that’s not where they draw the biggest interest. Their main feature is that they both show a tormented character who feels helpless and with the help of a few people, will rise to the challenge and help the cause. Starr is still a teenager, and the choices she makes will echo all her life and define her. Her story ends with the discovery of who she want to be, and it could only have happened because of the choices she made with or against the good will of her friends and family. In Seven Seconds, KJ has hit the glass ceiling, is haunted by a past investigation, and she gets to investigate this death that has no hope of leading to a conviction. As she gets discouraged and then supported by the only policeman who actually gives a crap (and serves as a comic relief), she has to face barriers and obstacles to uncover the truth. In the end, even if she doesn’t really win (nobody does, seeing their faces), she gains the respect of her peers, and most importantly, her own.

So, are they worth reading/watching? Definitely. The Hate U Give brought me several times to tears. It’s very powerful, and I was staying late at night to finish it. It is also refreshing to see that it is full of humour despite the serious subject. Seven Seconds is also good. Being 10 episodes, it trails sometimes, mainly because of the mother-uncle’s ark, which tends to be sloppy, and some moments at the end when it goes over the top. But the series is so well played by Clare-Hope Ashitey, and even though it didn’t create the same effect than Angie Thomas’ novel, I still recommend it because it’s a really important story and it makes a lot of efforts to remain honest, especially by keeping the human side of all characters.

Review: Backward and in Heels

I wanted to kick off my first book review on this website with a non-fiction that I have read recently. Backward and in Heels is an essay written by film critic and journalist Alicia Malone, who went into book worming and film archaeology to dig some of the most influential women who worked in films throughout its short history.

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Backward and in Heels

I wanted to kick off my first book review on this website with a non-fiction that I have read recently. Backward and in Heels is an essay written by film critic and journalist Alicia Malone, who went into book worming and film archaeology to dig some of the most influential women who worked in films throughout its short history. All of the women who appear in that book have had so much impact on the film industry, that it’s hard to understand how some of them are almost forgotten now. So that’s the objective of Alicia Malone: to give back the credit to these wonderful people who made history but where left behind.

It’s gonna be short because I actually don’t have much thing to say on the content. It’s a deeply researched document that used multiple sources such as essays, interviews, and of course films to report these stories as best as she could, gathering details of there lives that gives them depth. Bibliographical sources are listed at the end of the book, and somehow, I kinda regret that they’re not directly referenced, in more details, in the text, but I have the sense that the author didn’t want to give a feeling that her essay was too academical, so it wouldn’t scare away people interested in the subject.

Aside from the biographies, it goes into the issue of the representation of women working on films before and now, and how the mainstream industry has an implicit close door policy when it comes to hiring female directors. And despite the current trend in putting high-budget production in the hand of amazing female directors, the ratio is still unbelievably unbalanced toward men (spoiler: it’s been about 12% women for ages). So she interviewed current essayists who launched huge projects to really go to the bottom of this, compiling data over thousands of films, and statistics are astounding, showing that this ratio is not the result of a lack of interest by women in this field, but the consequence of an unfair an blatantly sexist selection along the way that undermines the will and spirit of women to make a career in film. As the saying goes (quoted from the book): “Men are hired on expectations, women are hired on experience”

So, if you’re interested in stories around cinema history, and the role of women in the industry, I can only recommend that book. You won’t be disappointed and you’ll realise how much we lack a women’s presence in this huge industry. But it’s also empowering and showing women that they can make their place in films despite the adversity, and that they have allies already installed who are making their best efforts to have a more balanced workforce.