Reading the future: The Handmaid’s Tale and All Our Wrong Todays

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An image of handmaids from the Hulu production of The Handmaid’s Tale. Source.

Like everyone else in the world, I’m rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired by the release of the new Hulu series to rediscover something I first read, oh, about fifteen years ago, I think. I was not assigned to read this book in high school, unlike many people, but when you grow up Canadian, a little Atwood comes your way no matter what.

I’ve been thinking lately about being the “right” or “wrong” age to read a book. Maybe there are some books you don’t appreciate fully until something in your life makes you appreciate them. Whenever I tell people about this theory, I cite Wuthering Heights as my prime example. Love (well, respect) the Brontes, can’t stand that one. Sorry, Emily! I think I was too old when I read it, even though I was only 16. Of course, I haven’t read it since then. Maybe it’s really a book for a 30-year-old (a year and a half to go until I find out!).

Maybe there are some books you don’t fully appreciate until you are the “right” age, whatever that means. Or it’s a matter of having had enough life experience to appreciate a book. I still hope that someday I will be able to love Middlemarch the way I so desperately want to.

Then, there are books that you appreciate even more when the world around you appears to be falling apart. That’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Written in 1985, the book feels ever more relevant in Trump’s America, which people point out so often that this observation already feels tired. I get it. This is great marketing for the TV show because it feels like the planet is in a collective free-fall, and we might as well watch a show about it.

 

As Atwood has famously said, she made a choice to base everything in the novel on things that had already happened in history. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a dystopian future as much as it is a funhouse mirror held up to our messy present, showing us all the ways that things could turn bad with just a stretch here or a distortion there. That’s what sets Atwood’s Gilead apart from its fictional counterparts like Oceania and Panem. Gilead is just recognizable enough to be truly terrifying.

When I first read this book, I didn’t quite grasp this. As a know-it-all teenager, I too thought, just like Offred in the before, that this could never happen. The gap between the time before and where we are when Offred begins her narration, this place where women are assigned roles based on fertility and there are public executions and forced sex, felt too large. But, as Offred observes, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” That gap isn’t large at all. We live in a world where rapists go free, where Indigenous women go missing or are murdered while the government does nothing, where a man can brag about grabbing women’s body parts and still be elected President. A world where women still make 72 cents on the dollar, and women of colour make even less. We’re already in the bathtub. Reading this book again, right now, is a frightening experience that makes me think about all the signs we’re missing, here on our path to our own dystopia. And so, as so many other people have discovered, this is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Cover of All Our Wrong Todays.

I recently finished another book about the future and about how we create it for ourselves, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays. There are three possible futures for the main character, Tom, who goes back in time and ends up catapulted out of his world and into another: there’s the technocratic utopia that resembles 1950s and 60s futurism, where everyone is happy but Tom has never quite fit in; there’s our version of 2016, full of pollution and disease, where Tom finds a better version of his family and the woman of his dreams; and there’s a third future, a dystopia, that Tom only glimpses through flashes of another version of himself but which includes radiation and endless global conflict.

All along, Tom thinks that the only choice is between the technocratic utopia of his world and the disappointing mess of our real world, but it turns out there’s an even more horrible future that only he can prevent. It makes me wonder. Are we indeed living in the darkest timeline, or is an even darker one still possible?

Things can always get worse. Time to get out of the bathtub.

My year in books: 2016

This was an interesting exercise last year, so I thought I’d do it again.  Obviously, 2016 is widely considered to have been a pretty terrible year for the world, and it was also a challenging year for me, personally, and for many people I know and love.  There will no doubt be a lot of thinkpieces in the next few weeks about what’s happened, and what we’ve all learned (or not learned), especially because some of what happened isn’t going to end in 2017, and we’ll all have to deal with the long-term consequences of things like Trump and Brexit. I look forward to anxiety-reading all about this in the next three weeks. (I enjoyed this piece from Slate, although it was published in July, back when Trump was just a nightmare and not a terrifying, Orwellian reality.)

2016 y u no end soon?
Is it over yet? Source.

All this preamble is to say that I was curious about whether my reading patterns would somehow reflect the crap year we all just lived through. I know that there was one major change, which I didn’t track through Goodreads: I read many more escapist romance novels this year than I ever have before. I don’t tend to count those toward my book total for the year because they are a) embarrassing to list in a public forum (sorry, I’m still kind of a snob), and b) I breeze through them so quickly that sometimes it’s like does this even count as reading. But in my own personal Terrible Months of July, August, September, and October, that was really all that I was reading, in between a lot of crying and anxiety-ranting at friends and family. (Anxiety-verbing is mostly what I spend my time doing, to be honest. Thanks, friends and family, for putting up with me.)

So anyway, my official number for this year as of December 8, 2016 is 80 books read, but it’s a bit higher than that, unofficially speaking. There’s more of a numbers breakdown below. Aside from reading more escapist fare this year (in addition to the uncounted romance novels, there was a lot of Georgette Heyer and YA fantasy), I don’t see very many patterns in my reading. As befits a year where a lot of things fell apart, most of the books I read seem to have been grabbed at random.

First, some superlatives (categories vary slightly from last year)…

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Best book I read: I absolutely loved The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Funny, sharp, insightful, and never dull, written with an appealing blend of anger and dry humour. The Canadian government is doing a #GiftingReconciliation book list this holiday season, and so far they’ve made some great choices, including King’s book. It should be required reading for everyone in North America. My two runners-up are The Break by Katherena Vermette (a book I’d love to see on the #GiftingReconciliation list) and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (more below).

Worst book I read: Unlike last year, I didn’t have an immediate winner here. I very much did not care for The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs, but it wasn’t pretending to be anything other than what it was—a somewhat fluffy escapist read.

Most fun reading experience: This is a three-way tie between two really fun books, Live Alone and Like It by Marjorie Hillis and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, and one pretty ridiculous book that I loved despite myself (The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, but fair warning, it is ridiculous). The Blue Castle is a true delight. Let the back-cover copy convince you:

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original-imageMost disappointing reading experience: 
I read Bill Bryson’s newest book The Road to Little Dribbling when I was on vacation in the U.K., thinking that a book in which he wanders around the U.K. would be a perfect
thematic match for my trip. I love Bill Bryson so much that I read the book he wrote about the summer of 1927 in America even though I don’t especially care about 1927, aviation, U.S. presidents, or old-timey baseball players, and I loved it—I trust him to take any boring old subject and write about it well and with great humour. So I was very disappointed when I finished The Road to Little Dribbling, which has all the heart and gentle wit of a diary kept by a cranky octogenarian muttering about “kids these days,” which is to say, hardly any.

Best endings: Unquestionably Elena Ferrante. I’ve only read two of the Neapolitan novels so far—My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name—and I have to admit I got a bit bogged down during the middle of the second one, but Ferrante knows how to build up steam before plunging her reader right into a devastating, dark, and perfectly unexpected ending. Those endings are seriously just killer. They’re not really cliffhangers, but both of the ones I’ve read (no spoilers, don’t worry) bring back a character, object, and/or motif that was important earlier in the book in such a surprising and perfect way that you think, “I can’t wait to read what happens next.”

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Best new-to-me author: I read Kurt Vonnegut for the first time this year (Slaughterhouse-Five) and was appropriately blown away, but my pick in this category is his polar opposite. My friend Jill (hi, Jill!) recommended Georgette Heyer to me ages ago, and this year I finally dove in. If you like Jane Austen, Heyer is the closest you can come to recreating that magic, and unlike Austen she was very prolific, so you’ll be occupied for a while. Her plots are formulaic, not as rich or surprising as Austen’s (but whose could be), and the characters are often quite silly—let’s say “lightly drawn”—but her books are thoroughly entertaining if you like the Regency period.

Best sequel: A Court of Mist and Fury, Sarah J. Maas’s follow-up to A Court of Thorns and Roses, veered sharply away from the track she laid during the first book, to great effect. Many long YA series can be frustrating because new situations and characters are thrown in only to create obstacles between the main character and the “real” love interest or to unnecessarily prolong the series. Maas herself is guilty of this in her Throne of Glass books, but in A Court of Mist and Fury, she reworks a lot of what was presented as unquestionably good in book one, and not in a way that just feels like she’s treading water waiting to get back to the original plot or love interest.

Best title: The title of Anne Tyler’s retelling of  27070127
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is great: Vinegar Girl. The book itself, less so. I wanted Tyler to dig a lot more
meat out of Shakespeare’s story, which she places in modern-ish Baltimore and retells with a light, mostly too light, touch.

Best revisionist history: My Lady Jane, co-written by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, is an absurd but fun retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days between Edward VI and Mary I, aka the two weaker prequels to Elizabeth I. In this version of Tudor England, the Protestant Reformation becomes a conflict between people who can turn into animals at will (Protestants like Edward VI) and those who can’t (Catholics like Mary I). I said it was absurd!

The Thomas Hardy Award for the book that took so long to read I forgot most of the plot: Moby-Dick. Obviously. I haven’t finished it yet, so I assume this award will have the same recipient in 2017, and possibly 2018… But my coworker gave me an adorable pop-up version of the book, so if I read that, it basically counts, right?

rush-ohBook I read because it seemed enough like Moby-Dick to count as working on reading Moby-DickShirley Barrett’s Rush Oh! is a charming coming-of-age story set in a small whaling town in New Zealand around the turn of the 20th century. Teenager Mary Davidson has to care for her many younger brothers and sisters while supporting her father and his whaling crew after her mother’s death. It’s a much funnier, gentler story than that summary suggests, and it reminded me very much of my beloved I Capture the Castle, which brings me to my next category…

Book I read because it seemed like a straight rip-off of I Capture the Castle and I am
here for that: 
This is a very specific-to-me category, but I’ll read any book set in a dusty old English castle that is about a girl who needs to marry rich. Thankfully for me, Patrice Kindl delivered with Keeping the Castle. It isn’t really a straight rip-off of ICtC, as it wasn’t written in the 1940s and therefore has a more tongue-in-cheek modern attitude about all the ridiculousness of decaying English aristocrats and life in a castle. It’s also set in the Regency period and its protagonist is much less dreamy and romantic than our 31122beloved Cassandra, but Keeping the Castle definitely scratches that “castle” itch. Keep the escapist castle books coming 13249217in 2017, world—we’re going to need them. Also, this seems like a good place to note that I wrote about ICtC for The Billfold this month, thus fulfilling my desire to proselytize about that novel to the world (or the portion of the world that reads The Billfold).

Best literary experience: Okay, so 2016 wasn’t all bad for me, because I took an amazing trip to the U.K. (pre-Brexit) and *drumroll* saw a BBC drama about the Brontës being filmed in their hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Which, by the way, is both the most picturesque place I think I’ve ever been and where I had the most delicious afternoon tea. I also saw the couch Emily died on and Charlotte’s appallingly tiny “mourning shoes,” which she decorated with the hair of her dead siblings. The Brontës were far more metal than you or I will ever be.

Bonnets!
Bonnets!

It was a pretty literary trip, in fact: we saw a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre; I went to the British Library not once but twice to look at two different exhibits; I also wandered through Lambeth carrying Somerset Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth with me (doing a bit of research for some freelance work, more on that in 2017); I visited the Charles Dickens Museum and was extremely excited to learn that I have the same butter churn as ol’ Chuck; then, the Brontë pilgrimage; and finally, we popped in to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh to say hi to Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robbie Burns. Definitely the highlight of the year.

I was very excited.
I was very excited. Also, The Black Bull was where Branwell went to get drunk. History! It’s everywhere, even in pubs.

And now, some numbers. In 2016, I read:

  • 80 books (as of December 8, with several more that I didn’t add to the official total—a complete list minus those extras can be found here);
  • 65 books by women and 15 books by men (crush the patriarchy etc.)*;
  • 66 novels, 11 nonfiction books, two mysteries, and one book of short stories;
  • 24 books I’d classify as young adult (though the lines between young adult, “new adult,” and regular old adult fiction are becoming ever more blurred);
  • six books inspired by Jane Austen in some way (four by Georgette Heyer, who was absolutely a Jane Austen fangirl, in addition to Dear Emma by Katie Heaney and the diary Emma Thompson kept while she was filming Sense and Sensibility);
  • five books by one author, Sarah J. Maas (the most books by any single author that I read this year);
  • four books about dating and/or being single, including Live Alone and Like It, about which I’ve gone on at length, but also All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, Labour of Love by Moira Weigel, and Date-onomics by Jon Birger;
  • two books about food in some way (Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson and Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal);
  • only one book set during WWII, Slaughterhouse-Five (this feels like it can’t possibly be right since all books eventually get back to WWII somehow…);
  • and once again, nothing by Jonathan Franzen! Good riddance, 2016!
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My cat’s favourite read this year was Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

*A note: This includes one book co-written by three women. In last year’s post I included only the author’s sex (which is just a best guess based on a quick Google search or prior knowledge; obviously we can’t always know an author’s true gender identity preference). It’s important to me to read diverse books (after this year more than ever), and I still do a pretty terrible job of it, so I need to make more of an effort. But giving a breakdown here of “white writers” vs. “writers of colour” also doesn’t feel like a great solution for a whole host of reasons—sometimes you know a writer’s background or race and sometimes you don’t, and I don’t want to assume anything about anyone or lump all writers of colour into one category. I do know that I need to get better at this, though, so I might start noting this more in 2017.