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.

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?

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.

Oxenfree and the power of sound design

I play a lot of video games, and I wish I had the time and energy to review every one of them. But it’s not my job, and honestly, I don’t really want to talk about games that I didn’t like. And most often, I lack the skill to talk effectively about games I like. So what I will try to do, is pick a game that I loved from a previous year and do my best to give it justice, and hopefully, someone will discover something and will want to play it too.

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I play a lot of video games, and I wish I had the time and energy to review every one of them. But it’s not my job, and honestly, I don’t really want to talk about games that I didn’t like. And most often, I lack the skill to talk effectively about games I like. So what I will try to do, is pick a game that I loved from a previous year and do my best to give it justice, and hopefully, someone will discover something and will want to play it too.

So today, I want to talk about Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016). And since it’s just out on the Switch, it’s a pretty good timing.

People who know me, know that what I like in a game (or a book/movie), is a good story and interesting characters. And also a good sound design (not in books obviously). Because you can have an compelling story and deep character arcs, if your sound sucks, it takes you out of a story. Personally, I don’t think the story of Oxenfree is that great. It’s good, and it’s consistent with the atmosphere it’s trying to convey. But it’s mainly a character-driven game. To me at least.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a group of friends who go to an island for the weekend. There is only one boat trip to go, and the next trip back is the following day, so they have to spend the night on the island. And of course, there is no cellular network. As you might expect, things start to happen, involving radio interference, friends disappearing out of the blue, and a WWII submarine stranded in time (that escalated quickly). And between all that, the characters spend their time talking about their life and Alex’s (you) brother (who died).

As you might expect from this brief synopsis, there is a lot of time-related issues, of the kind that will mess with your head. I am not sure that everything actually works, but who cares, because that’s not what’s important. It’s a game that focuses on grief and gives you the role of the younger sister who has to deal with it, and also with a bunch of friends who all have a different way to dealing with grief, and some will take it on you. And of course, you choose how to handle it.

To do that, it uses a very common system of branching dialogues. You hear someone talking to you and you’re given the choice in your response. It sounds like a pretty boring, overused system. But it’s done the perfect way. First, every dialogue prompt is timed. Not to pressure you (although some are really fast), but because you never have to actually choose anything. You can even play the whole game as a mute if you want, the other players will react in consequence. Also, the game makes trying to optimize your choice of dialogue pointless. Choices that seem good, may have bad consequences. And antagonizing some character may have good effects in the end (for some characters, at least). If I have one advice in playing this game, it’s this one:

PLAY OXENFREE WITH YOUR GUTS!

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Play the first time like you would be this character, with your own feelings, because that’s how you’re going to have the best experience and immersion. Don’t hesitate the second or third time around (1) to settle for a type of character and play it until the end, to see how it may turn the story, but again, don’t optimize. It kills the experience and there is no right answer anyway.

Now, about what makes this experience possible: sound design.

You’ve all played to games that use choices in dialogues; there is this awkward pause before you choose, and there are always weird transitions between each piece of dialogue, with the wrong tone, or other discrepancy that doesn’t feel right. In Oxenfree, there is nothing of that. Everything plays seemlessly. It’s perfect, and I don’t just say that because I love the game. It’s actually an amazing feature of this game, and that’s what makes it stand out. Every dialogue feels like a real dialogue, that plays along whatever you choose. The character will cut the other character or wait until they finishes, depending on your choice, or the character will talking continue even if you didn’t choose anything. The voice acting is always right, the sound editing is perfect, with no level difference or glitches, and it integrates amazingly with the soundtrack for the best experience possible.

For me it’s way more important to have a good sound experience than amazing graphics. Here, the graphics are good. They’re not extraordinary, but the artistic choice is interesting and it works well with the story, but the focus on sound is really a top-of-the-shelf performance. Something that has to be commended and rewarded. So I hope this review gives it credit, and I wish more people would play it, so Night School Studio, the developer/editor, would make more of that kind of game.

(1) The game is actually different the second time you play, thanks to a feature added later on (for free, which is amazing in the era of game-as-a-service) that uses the choices you make in your first run to change the story on the following runs, which makes for a good re-playability.

Game available on PC (Steam, GOG, Humble Bundle), PS4, Xbox One, Switch.

Editor’s website: http://nightschoolstudio.com/oxenfree/ (where the image is from)