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The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. they blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. the entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.

Margaret Atwood’s books have been on my radar for some time and I just kept putting off reading one. This was a mistake.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in an eerily familiar, dystopic Boston. After waves of natural disasters and toxic spills caused upheaval through the United States by making resources scarce and child births scarcer, a group of biblical fundamentalists enacted a coup, creating a new country called Gilead.

Gilead is a rigidly hierarchical state, with strict separation of the genders. Men (Commanders, Guardians, Angels) are soldiers and professionals. Women primarily serve in household roles, such as wives, cleaning and cooking (Marthas), as well as overseeing other women (Aunts). Only Aunts are allowed to read any longer, and women are not allowed to hold jobs or have money. The most prized women, though, are those capable of having children. Some wives are capable having kids, but the elite men who have no children are allotted, based on biblical precedent, handmaids, whose entire purpose is that of surrogate womb—-so fully that the fertility ritual involves symbolically linking with the wife once a month while being visited by the head of household. If she fails to become pregnant, she will be transferred to another home; if she passes childbearing age, she will become an and transferred to a job like sweeping toxins.

The story is told in choppy and furtive sentences from the point of view of a woman known for her current station as Offred (named so for the man she’s attached to). She had a husband and a child, once, but they were captured while trying to escape to Canada and she was taken to the Red Center, a place for training the first generation of Handmaids. After graduating she is assigned.

One detaches oneself. one describes…

The tension in The Handmaid’s Tale emerges from the treatment of the new reality—the killings, the subjugation of women being treated as a privilege, the deprivation—as completely normal being juxtaposed with memories of freedom and choice from the past life.

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.

Some of the characters take pleasure in their positions of power or receive enough benefits that they are not interested in challenging the status quo, but others, particularly the younger generations that don’t remember what it was like before, who are true believers.

Despite being published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale holds up exceptionally well, the difficulty of reading at times being entirely by design. The only point that seemed a bit dated was the technology, but, by and large, the themes (totalitarianism, militarism, control of a woman’s body) are still painfully relevant.

I loved this book and the highest praise I can give is that I eagerly await when I get to read another of Atwood’s novels.

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Next up, I am currently reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which, thus far, is an engrossing story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of some other science fiction I have read recently.

The Ionian Mission – Patrick O’Brian

Also known as Volume 8 of the Continuing Adventures of Aubrey and Maturin.

Captain Aubrey must once again fly from home life in order to escape creditors and therefore accepts the first commission available, on a ship he does not like, to a task he finds dull, and under a senior officer with a grudge. Circumstances  during the dull blockade force a transfer, followed by a mission to the Ottoman Empire that will call for both diplomatic and naval skill.

Reviewing installments in this long-running series is difficult. I like our core characters–bold and capable Jack Aubrey and the circumspect and intelligent Stephen Maturin–and particularly appreciate O’Brian’s attention to detail. This attention was all the more necessary in this book because there is so little action to driv the story. But this is the point, not a flaw. Blockade is boring.

Several features of O’Brian’s style stood out in <em>The Ionian Mission</em> . First, and probably in an accurate representation of the historical context, Aubrey’s successful promotion puts him in a position to be away from fighting. Commanding a large ship is about bureaucratic maneuvers, while the smaller vessels had the liberty to seek or stumble into action. It is no surprise then that O’Brian creates a transition back to Aubrey’s beloved HMS Surprise for  the eponymous Ionian Mission. Second, there are a few set pieces in each book, including the battle scene, the gunnery training montage, and the creditors on land. No two are exactly alike, but while the plots do differ, one of the tricks O’Brian uses to vary the books almost as much is to change the starting and concluding points. In this case there is technically no resolution, but cuts away immediately after the climax. The result is that the book is a genuinely serialized product.

<em>The Ionian Mission</em> is a solid installment in an enjoyable historical fiction series, but I would certainly recommend starting a the beginning.

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Next up, I just finished Margaret Atwood’s deeply disconcerting dystopian novel <em>The Handmaid’s Tale</em>, and will probably dive into Robert Heinlein’s <em>Starship Troopers<\em> later this weekend.

Alexander the Globalist

A link to a JSTOR-Daily post came across my Twitter feed this morning commenting on an article arguing that Alexander the Great was the founder of globalization because his vision of a universal empire of “indeterminate identification,” led by humanist transcending the limits of any one identification. Since the chapters I’ve been buried in the past two weeks now walks, talks, looks, and feels like a dissertation chapter (finally) and happens to focus on Alexander, I thought I’d offer a few of thoughts.

First, the basic argument (as is often the case with this topic) is rehashed to the point of exhaustion and reframed, but not new. The principle adaptation that the article advocates for is to consider the supposed “universal empire” described by Plutarch as a truly humanistic impulse rather than a sign of philosophical training or of his determination to Hellenize the world. The basic observation that Macedonia was at a crossroads and introduced young Alexander to a variety of cultures is a valuable observation, but why this would make him more tolerant of exotic cultures than his Macedonian followers is not explained. Most likely, Macedonian resistance to the elevation of others was the result of political friction as their place within the hierarchy was challenged. It is easy to be humanistic when you aren’t being threatened.

Second, the article’s main point is that the “indeterminacy of identity” is at the root of globalization, as distinct from moral or economic factors. This is fair, but hits a snag because he hinges much of the argument on the idea of national origin in antiquity. Taking on these multiple roles was also nothing new for ancient rulers. The Macedonian kings were kings of the Macedonians, but were also alone formally ruled to be Greeks—-similarly the Spartan kings were formally not Dorian because they were descended from Heracles instead of the later interlopers. Cultures and identities, in those examples, but also elsewhere in the Greek world and beyond, were much more fluid than are often imagined, so why Alexander ought to be special in this regard is a mystery.

third, and most importantly, I question the idea that globlization is something that can be achieved by individuals rather than larger forces. This is not to say that I particularly like or subscribe to the idea of the invisible hands of markets, but rather that a truly humanistic globalization as described by the article is, when made by an individual, a political decision that, in this case, was a way to unify an empire that consisted of a large number of disparate forces and factions. The easiest way to rule such a state was for Alexander to wear all of the hats simultaneously—-and when the easiest way to conquer or rule the state was bloody slaughter, that is what he did. Alexander was a pragmatic and (usually) open-minded political actor whose policies cannot be divorced from his drive for domination. The fact that he dominated Greeks and Macedonians as well as barbarians is irrelevant.

I do believe that we should look at the ancient world as an interconnected system not unlike globalization. However, genuine globalization cannot seen as the work of an individual without recognizing the benefits that person gains in pushing the agenda.

The Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth

On a whim a few weeks ago I picked up some spy novels. In short, I decided that I needed a change of pace from my usually run of heavy literature and wanted something that could be both exhilarating and also read at a different rate from my usual. At the same time I didn’t want to read just any junk, so I used the internet to find some lists of excellent spy thrillers, which is where I found Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal. I was not disappointed.

The year is 1963 and there is a secret war being waged on the government of France by disaffected groups of citizens and soldiers calling themselves the Secret Army Organization (OAS) who believe that Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, has betrayed the country by agreeing to withdraw from Algeria. Opposing them is the Action Service, a violent secret police organization that has thwarted the OAS and neutered its operations, including kidnapping one of the leaders from another country. Out of desperation, the remaining leaders of the OAS have decided to hire an assassin, codename Jackal. Catching just the hint of the plot, the French ministers have appointed an unassuming detective named Claude Lebel to catch the Jackal—-a professional killer whose identity, let alone plan, is a mystery to them.

In his author’s note, Forsyth calls himself a storyteller and that much is clear from the narrative. The Day of the Jackal is divided into three sections: “Anatomy of a Plot,” “Anatomy of a Manhunt,” and “Anatomy of a Kill,” with each ratcheting up the tension. The first section works methodically through the plots to kill de Gaulle, first the earlier OAS plots, then the hiring of an assassin, and finally the Jackal’s plot. The second continues to followed the Jackal, while also following Lebel’s process of uncovering the assassin and his plan, and the third shoots up toward the explosive finish. The pacing is excellent and I particularly enjoyed how Forsyth offers just enough detail to trace the story through the lives of people who exist outside the book. For instance, the reader never gets to meet Lebel’s wife, but, other than his job, that is his primary concern in life. What this quickly explain motivations for all of the people involved. The only exception to this rule is the Jackal himself, who remains a mystery as he adopts identity after identity. At least his motivation is clear. He wants to get paid and retire.

As is true of most good spy fiction, The Day of the Jackal is a very limited story that follows one clear arc that takes place parallel to the real world and sinking back into oblivion by the end. The stakes are important, but not global. What stood out about this one in particular was the particular limited information available to the detectives. There were no microchips or internet or computer programs, so when they decide to check all recent passports they must do so by hand. This is, of course, a feature of hindsight, but the specifics of this sort of story must change with the times.

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Next up, I just finished Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission and intend to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale next. I am also working my way through Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history.

Summer project post

I was on a writing fellowship this spring and, despite it all, it ended up being an incredibly busy term. In addition to revising my dissertation and writing articles for submission, I gave a bunch of guest lectures and attended two conferences to present my research. Naturally, this means that at the end of the term I was, and remain for the short term anyway, exhausted.

This summer is going to be a lot more of the same, but, for the sake of accountability, I want to set a (partial) list of projects to tackle this summer.

  • Set up a professional website to my satisfaction, and migrate this blog in order to have a consolidated web-presence.
  • Edit and submit (at least) two articles to academic journals.
  • Finish a complete revised draft of my dissertation

There are some other things I want to accomplish—write a little more broadly here, try to tackle either War and Peace or Infinite Jest, etc—and this list is sure to grow, but this is a good starting point.

Every House Needs a Balcony – Rina Franks

Blurbed as “the Israeli Kite Runner,” Every House Needs a Balcony has the bones of an engaging immigrant story, but, ultimately, falls flat. Told in the first person, the book alternates between two timelines, one with Rina as a girl in Wadi Salib, a poor immigrant neighborhood in Haifa, the other as a young woman in Israel, Barcelona. The first timeline deals with observations of family, poverty, and immigration; the second with money, relationships and children. Both sections provide plenty of chances for observation. Between these thematic elements and the intriguing title that promised to tell a story either looking out from balconies or pining for that opportunity, this novel had all the makings of a gripping story, but it did not live up to any of these possibilities. In fact, in my opinion, it flopped.

I managed to finish Every House Needs a Balcony despite a genuine disinterest in what would happen next for two reasons. First, nothing about the book was terribly complex, so the story read quite quickly, and, second, I kept reading because I was determined to figure out what I found off-putting about it. I knew that I lacked an emotional connection to the story, but for most of the read I couldn’t figure out why, wondering about a translation issue (it was originally in Hebrew), or an unfamiliar setting, or experiences that I couldn’t relate to. None of these felt quite right, though.

Eventually I determined my problem with my the book was the first-person narration. There is nothing inherently wrong with this viewpoint and it did allow particular insight in both narrations—the best part of the story was the juxtaposition of the poverty and dangers for the young girl in Wadi Salib and the pampered luxury in Barcelona. And yet, the extremely limited viewpoint meant that the narrator is the only character who has even a modicum of well-roundedness. In my opinion, the narrator was not a particularly interesting character. In contrast, Franks sometimes fills out the other characters in the story, but does more with this in the Wadi Salib portion of the book, while the romance plot has a variety of flat characters (including those who are more-rounded in the other half) who come in and out of the story with no warning or explanation. Adding to my frustration with Every House Needs a Balcony was that it was effectively two independent stories linked by a small number of characters and juxtaposed. This technique can work, but here I thought the two were jarring and did not hang together.

I had high hopes for Every House Needs a Balcony, and there are all the elements of a great story, but in the end I just can’t recommend it to anyone.

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Next up, I’ve been wanting to read more spy thrillers, and recently picked up a copy of Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal. So far I’m quite happy with this change of pace.

Man Tiger – Eka Kurniawan

Man Tiger is the slim second novel by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan that has been met with very good, albeit not superlative reviews. (Usually I don’t read reviews before writing my recaps, but have been hunting around to find what language Man Tiger was originally written in, only to find some people frustrated by the book’s unevenness, with some complaints about rote elements.)

The story opens with news of a gruesome murder. Margio, an young man with a female White Tiger living inside him, has killed Anwar Sadat, the father of his girlfriend, by biting his head nearly clean off. Like any good crime story, Kurniawan takes the reader back in time and builds up to the event in question, without answering if the murder is justified.

Man Tiger is, at its heart, the story of two families living in one unnamed Indonesian village at the intersection of modern convenience and traditional techniques. The first, primary, family is that of Margio, including his abusive father Komar bin Syueb, mother Nuraeni, and sister Mameh; the second is that of the victim, the lecherous artist Anwar Sadat, including his wife and three daughters, the youngest of whom is Margio’s girlfriend Maharani. Anwar Sadat’s family, through the wife Kasia, is one of the wealthiest in town, being descended from the original settlers of the place; Margio comes from one of the poorest, who live in a dilapidated house in danger of falling down. Despite the inchoate romance between Margio and Maharani, the relationship between the families begins as one of domestic labor and privilege.

Margio inherits the eponymous female white tiger that lives inside him from his grandfather and the narrative skips back and forth between the years of struggle and abuse leading up to the events and the weeks or months immediately before it while Margio seeks to control the tiger rather than be dominated by it. It is in these perilous days that he embraces his desire to kill his father who has spent years–Margio’s entire life–abusing his mother. The story makes it clear that both children are born of rape.

What really stood out is that there are symbols of Suharto and the Indonesian government, but at no point do these feature prominently in the narrative except to perhaps suggest that some of the hardships faced by Margio’s family are the result of these forces. Instead, the conflict comes from intimate and familiar sources.

I liked Man Tiger a lot, and its tightly woven structure means that it is a quick read, but, ultimately, I must agree that it is uneven. There are rote elements that are at home in either crime fiction or Latin American magical realism, but the latter is, in my opinion, not fully realized. The tiger comes to symbolize and enable Margio’s simmering hatred of his father, but is also used as a short-hand rather than really engaging with his struggle, even if it is taken literally by the Javanese.

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Next up, I am reading Nina Frank’s novel Every House Needs a Balcony about a family of Rumanian-Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.

The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

Hudson University

I have mentioned before that I have something of a soft-spot for (often) ridiculous television dramas. Some I legitimately like, others feed bad habits without demanding anything of me in return, including not requiring money. The latest addition to my routine has been Blindspot, an FBI, spy mystery that revolves around deciphering tattoos on Jane Doe’s body and, by extension, figuring out who she is and why she came to the attention of the FBI. Usually I wish they would do more with this sort of character story rather than using the same hook for a new semi-procedural of discovering and then resolving corruption throughout the city. This week’s episode traipsed into a cliche that sits on my list of pet-peeves: the college campus.

One tattoo is revealed to contain significant digits for Hudson University’s highly lucrative football program national championships and seem to point to NCAA scholarship violations, so the agents wander to campus to speak to a coach who denies any knowledge and, on their way out, stumble across a school shooting. It turns out that the shooting is perpetrated by former (and current?) players who have rigged many several doors in a (student center?) building next to the football field with explosives and are now marching through the building with assault rifles in order to kill the coach because he molested them as children; the scholarship violations were hush-money to keep the scandal under wraps. The story is a clumsy retelling of the Jerry Sandusky saga at Penn State garnished with the school-shooting epidemic.

There is a lot that could be unpacked about the inconsistencies of the story. The shooters insist they are only after the coach, but nevertheless rigged doors in a student building with explosives. The coach evidently goes into the building a lot, but this sort of hand-wavy treatment of the college campus is frustrating. The student center of this fictional school contains a) cafeterias, b) classrooms, c) an auditorium, d) labs, and the whole thing is set particularly close to athletics facilities. At a small school this could certainly happen, but at a school large enough to have a nationally-competitive football program it is highly improbable. Instead of offering any sort of specificity, the writers offer vague snapshots of “college” and expect the viewer to be able to fill in the gaps. This is not particular to Blindspot, and Hudson University is a common setting for a large number of television shows when they need a stock-college.

At some level, though, this is a function of the medium. College is still a fairly ubiquitous experience for most people in America and that school is a convenient setting for a story rather than the point of the show, so vague snapshots suffice. Nevertheless, the preponderance of these snapshots help perpetuate stereotypes about the academy. (Perhaps office shows perpetuate stereotypes about offices, etc, but these shows seem to dally with the academy in a way similar only to entertainment industries.)

I don’t like how colleges are portrayed on TV, but have only one, tangentially related suggestion. Even if none of these other stereotypes are resolved, can we at least move them to a more believable location? The last time a New York school with a football program won a national championship was Army, in 1946. The show wants to be set in New York for a variety of reasons, but also to tap into the national obsession with football–two things that hardly go together.