Sunday, December 10, 2017

King Leopold's Ghost

Title: King Leopold's Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: non-fiction, African history, colonialism, racism

**This review is adapted from a reflection essay for my Modern World Civilization class**

            Before reading this book, I knew that Africa had been politically “carved up” between various European powers without any input from Africans and I knew that the Belgians had colonized the Congo but I had never read or learned about the details of Belgian colonization until now. After reading this book, I think the Belgian regime can be summed up in two words: greed and brutality. The Belgians were in Africa due to the restlessness and greed of King Leopold II. His ambition and restlessness affected his personal life (his wife and daughters despised him; Leopold disowned his daughters), he constantly defrauded the Belgian government to raise money for his insatiable desire for land and empire, and his race-based, Euro-centric regime killed and maimed millions of Congolese. After thirty-eight years on this Earth I am aware that humans have been cruel to each other since the beginning of recorded history, yet I am always horrified to find out how that cruelty is manifested.
            Hochschild uses the phrases “African cake” or “cake of Africa” many times throughout this book, a sentiment first expressed by King Leopold to one of his staff members (Hochschild 1998:58). This phrase confirms the European attitude towards African and its inhabitants: an object or thing to be devoured or consumed instead of a continent that was (and is) home to millions of human beings. After Britain abolished slavery in the early 1800s, the British empire focused on abolishing slavery in other parts of the non-European, non-Christian world as well: “Righteous denunciations poured down on a distant, weak, and safely nonwhite target: the so-called Arab slave-traders raiding Africa from the east” (28). Africa became an object of desire in the Victorian era since “these were the years when, to the distress of many young male Europeans, Europe was at peace. For a young man looking for a battle…the Congo was the place to go. For a white man, the Congo was also a place to get rich and wield power” (136). When it was confirmed that Africa could provide the raw materials needed to fulfill increased manufacturing and consumer demand during the Industrial Revolution, (27) Africa’s fate was doomed. Once Europeans reached Africa they viewed Africans as lazy (68) yet forced them to do hard labor that benefited European interests: “To Europeans, Africans were inferior beings: lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals. In fact, the most common way they were put to work was like animals, as beasts of burden” (121). Thanks to this inhumane treatment and racist mindset, thousands of African men died from the intense physical labor, meager food rations, and disease.
            Victorian-era explorers, soldiers, and businessmen cloaked their racism under the banner of guns and glory; unfortunately, some missionaries also hid their racist biases under the guise of humanitarianism or a spiritual call to serve. British Protestant missionaries were originally sent to Africa to help Africans improve their quality of life (according to European quality of life standards) (211). This goodwill eventually morphed into the belief “that improving the lot of downtrodden people everywhere was good for business” (212). Sometimes missionary zeal developed and colluded with something more sinister: Leopold planned for military, religious, and vocational schools to be set up for African children (133). The military schools were filled with children whose orphan status was in doubt- these schools were run by Catholic missionaries loyal to King Leopold who rewarded their loyalty through financial means. Like the male adults, African children often died of disease or starvation on their way to the orphanage or soon after their arrival.
            The Belgians maintained control of the Congolese through firepower and the much-feared chicotte which was a “whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide cut into a long, sharp-edge corkscrew strip” (120). Lashes from the chicotte were unleashed on a victim’s bare buttocks while the victim was tied to two poles laying on the ground during the administration of his punishment. To add salt to the wound, “the bulk of the chicotte blows were inflicted by Africans on the bodies of other Africans” (122). This allowed the Belgians to physically and psychologically separate themselves from the dirty work of administration and “created a class of foremen from among the conquered” (122) and probably soured relations between Africans.
            Other terror tactics included alliances with certain ethnic groups (which did not protect them from later enslavement by the Belgians), the lack of promotional opportunities for black soldiers (who were mostly conscripted), and state-sanctioned kidnapping. In a cruel twist of irony, Hochschild points out that “white officers who bargained with village chiefs to acquire ‘volunteer’ soldiers and porters were sometimes dealing with the same sources that had supplied the east coast Afro-Arab slave-traders” (130). During the natural rubber boom of the 1890s, male laborers were forced to meet rubber-harvesting quotas. To prevent rebellion and runaways, the Belgians would loot a village of all its foodstuffs and food sources and then kidnap the village women until the required rubber quota was met (161). Rubber-harvesting areas were also controlled through the issuance and denial of travel permits for Africans (similar to the travel permissions in the antebellum South). Males were required to wear a metal disk around their necks that noted the status of their rubber quota (163). Sometimes rebellious Africans were shot on sight by the colonial police force (the Force Publique) but this practice was frowned on by the officers who wanted proof that bullets had been used in military skirmishes, not in recreational hunting (165). The proof soldiers brought back was the right hand of dead Africans (165). Like all unofficial policies, this was not enforced, and soldiers amputated hands from living Africans to cover up personal use of ammunition.
The atrocities in the Congo were finally exposed through the words and evidence provided by three whistleblowers: Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, and George Washington Williams. Williams was an African American Civil War veteran, pastor, journalist, and lawyer. He was no stranger to controversy- while in the States he often spoke out against post-Civil War violence against blacks. The purpose of Williams’ trip to the Congo was to scope out work opportunities for African Americans: “In Africa, surely, there would be the chance for pioneering and advancement then denied blacks in the United States” (105). Williams’ idealistic vision of opportunity was quickly dashed by the horrors he personally witnessed. Williams used his outrage to publish a pamphlet exposing King Leopold’s regime to the world. Williams’ Open Letter “was the first comprehensive, systematic indictment of Leopold’s colonial regime” (109). Williams accused the Belgian regime of fraud, widespread death and destruction, excessive cruelty, starvation, kidnapping, slavery and other “crimes against humanity” (112). The Belgian government issued a rebuttal against these accusations while Belgian newspapers defended Williams. Williams died soon after his exposé which allowed the Belgian government to save face.
Edmund Dene Morel was a clerk for the Elder Dempster shipping company which held a lucrative and exclusive monopoly on all shipping between Antwerp and the Congo. Morel was tasked with supervising the shipping between Liverpool and Antwerp and he soon realized that his reports submitted to the Belgian government did not match up with the trade statistics released to the public. Upon further investigation he discovered that weapons were being secretly shipped to the Congo, someone was making a huge profit (King Leopold), and African workers were not being paid for their labor: “From what he saw at the wharf in Antwerp and from studying his company’s records in Liverpool, he deduced the existence-on another continent, thousands of miles away-of slavery” (180). Morel quit his job at Elder Dempster to focus on exposing Leopold’s lies full time; Morel created and edited the weekly journal, The West African Mail. Thanks to his extensive research and fact checking, documents and photographs were smuggled to him by missionaries and others within the Congo (190). The photographs were the most important pieces of evidence against King Leopold for they “provided evidence that no propaganda could refute” (215).
William Sheppard was an African American, Presbyterian missionary who brought joy to everyone he met in Africa. Hochschild notes that Sheppard grew in self-confidence while in Africa once he was away from the chafing restrictions of American society and the Southern Presbyterian denomination. His outlook as a marginalized American allowed “his writings [to] show an empathetic, respectful curiosity about African customs” (156). His demeanor, curiosity, and language skills allowed him to meet with the Kuba, one of the last African kingdoms, unharmed. Unfortunately, not all of his discoveries and adventures were pleasant- he discovered the policy of severed hands mentioned above and published his findings in numerous missionary magazines upon his return to the United States. His reports along with the photographic evidence submitted to Morel was the beginning of Leopold’s downfall in the public eye.
I think the truth of the Congo was able to stay secret for so long was due to multiple factors: Leopold put a humanitarian spin on his conquest and colonization of the Congo and very few people seemed to question his real motives. After Leopold’s death, his real motives were revealed through his convoluted accounting system which took years to uncover (276). Most Europeans didn’t think anything was wrong with their treatment of the Africans; Europeans believed themselves to be a superior race and civilization. When Leopold did set up investigative committees, these committees were mostly a PR move to maintain his humanitarian image. Committee members were usually appointed by the king and they had personal and financial interests in the activities and future of the Congo. When investigative committees did release reports criticizing the king, the reports were never released to the public or they were rewritten in a more favorable light.
Hochschild also points out that the humanitarians that were outraged at the atrocities found in the Congo often turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by their own countries or political allies, “…it was a safe target. Outrage over the Congo did not involve British or American misdeeds, nor did it entail the diplomatic, trade, or military consequences of taking on a major power” (282).  “The Dark Continent” as Africa was called, was not only an allusion to African skin color but was also a euphemism in the eighteenth century about the unexplored portions of the continent. The Dark Continent is also a metaphor for the dark deeds perpetrated by various European regimes over the past four centuries- deeds based on greed and the thirst for land, resources, and power.

During our class discussion of this book, the professor asked us, “How would you describe this book in one sentence?” As you can see from my above review it would be very difficult to describe the events recounted in King Leopold’s Ghost in once sentence. Well, one of my classmates responded with this succinct statement: “King Leopold was a douchebag!” In all seriousness though, the class was shocked that the world (outside of the Congo) knows little to nothing about this “forgotten holocaust.”

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Title: Matilda: The Algonquin Cat
Author: Leslie Martini
Genre: picture books, cat books, cat storytime, based on a true story, NYC history

I first read about Matilda a few weeks in a back issue of Catster magazine during one of my cats' vet appointments. A cat that lives in a hotel? I was intrigued. After some research I discovered this book; my son loves cats and I can still get away with reading picture books to him, so I ordered the book through my library's interlibrary loan program. The book is adorable and as an added bonus (for me), my son took the initiative, with no prompting or begging from me, to read this book aloud on his own. This book chronicles the daily duties and thoughts of our precious Matilda with plenty of cat-itude!

Unfortunately, Matilda passed away this past October due to complications from a stroke. But fear not- a feline still graces the hallway of the famed Algonquin- Hamlet! You can read more about Hamlet here (and book a hotel room):

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Black and Blue

Title: Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America
Author: Jeff Pegues
Genre: nonfiction, American history, racism, civil rights, African American history

**This review has been adapted from a book review I wrote for my Anthropology and Pop Culture class**

            The beating of Rodney King was one of the most infamous police brutality cases of the twentieth century. Police brutality cases involving African American men appear to be on the rise in recent years- between 2014 and 2017, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Keith Lamont Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Terrence Crutcher died during police interactions or while in police custody. Jeff Pegues, in Black and Blue: Inside the Divide Between the Police and Black America, brings to light why police brutality is once again making headlines throughout America: the roots of racism in police brutality, the lack of accountability in policing, and the need for reconciliation between the police and the African American community.
            The first theme that Pegues tackles in his book is accountability. Members of the police and African American communities were interviewed by Pegues about their thoughts on police accountability. Both sides agreed that police need to be held accountable and punished when they overstep their bounds but each side measured that accountability in different ways. Achieving accountability was on the minds of many Chicagoans after the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald in 2014. After the shooting, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) originally released a statement that the shooting was justified after McDonald had acted in an aggressive manner; when the video was released to the public thirteen months later, the video revealed that “Van Dyke fired the first sixteen shots, and Laquan McDonald was leaning away from the officer. The CPD’s so-called code of silence had been exposed along with other systemic problems going back decades” (Pegues 2017:63).
            What is the “code of silence’? It depends on whom Pegues interviewed. Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the code of silence as “the tendency to ignore. It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency [to] in some cases cover up the bad action of a colleague or colleagues” (Pegues 2017:46). Dean Angelo, a CPD veteran and president of the Fraternal Order of Police claims the thin blue line “keeps the beast from the door” and is “the line of separation between the good and the bad” (Pegues 2017:54). To Angelo the code of silence is not covering a colleague’s bad behavior but “listening, not talking. Learn by observing, learn by hearing” (Pegues 2017: 190). The police view the thin blue line and the code of silence as the noble concepts of protection and duty while the African American community views it as an “oppressive force” (Pegues 2017:50) of corruption.
            In response to the Laqaun McDonald shooting the CPD established the Police Accountability Task Force to “actively seek out, listen, and respond to voices all over this city” (Pegues 2017:63). The Police Accountability Task Force would also be responsible for the thousands of abuse complaints that are lodged against the CPD every year: “From 2011 to 2015, 40 percent of complaints against police officers were not investigated” (Pegues 2017:114). The Task Force also recommended the creation of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability- this agency would have “greater power to investigate alleged police abuse and the use of deadly force…offer recommended changes to both police policy and procedure” (Pegues 2017:222); Unfortunately, the civilian task force was a voter-based ordinance which was struck down by voters, especially voters in white neighborhoods that contained police residents.
            The rejection of the civilian-led accountability agency by white Chicagoans sheds light on a dirty secret within the police community (and the second theme of this book): the infiltration of white supremacists in the law enforcement community. Some of this infiltration manifests itself in obvious ways and sometimes racial bias within in police ranks is more insidious. In our class lecture, we learned that some Los Angeles police officers hailed originally from Mississippi and they brought their racial biases with them to California. These LAPD officers were known to cruise African American neighborhoods for the sole purpose of stirring up trouble by yelling racial epithets and acronyms from their police cruisers (Trunzo class lecture, September 5, 2017). Liberal San Francisco was no better in their viewpoints towards African Americans- one police precinct in an African American neighborhood was known to have a picture of a KKK grand wizard displayed on a public bulletin board (Trunzo class lecture, September 5, 2017).
            An example of insidious racial bias within law enforcement is the controversial “stop and frisk” policies initiated by the New York Police Department that were later adopted throughout the country. The original purpose of stop and frisk was crime prevention: “officers were encouraged to stop and question pedestrians and then frisk them for weapons” (Pegues 2017:26) but complaints and statistics show that this policy was abused by cops with racial motives and usually only enforced in minority communities. For example, in Baltimore stop and frisk was “concentrated in predominantly African American neighborhoods and often lacked reasonable suspicion” (Pegues 2017:22) and
BPD searched African Americans more frequently during pedestrian and vehicle stops, even though searches of African Americans were less likely to discover contraband. Indeed, BPD officers found contraband twice as often when searching white individuals compared to African Americans during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops (Pegues 2017:23).
On paper, this aggressive form of law enforcement appeared to lower crime but there were other repercussions: the breakup of families, job loss, increased prison populations, and the temptation by police departments to turn stop and frisk into a source of revenue.
            The final theme in Black and Blue is reconciliation which is repeatedly mentioned in the book by Pegues and by many of his interview subjects. Pegues recognizes that reconciliation will be a long process and hard work for both sides of the thin blue line. Pegues recommends a multi-step reconciliation process: acknowledgement, expungement of bad cops, sessions of open dialogue, and the establishment of positive interactions between civilians and the police.
            “This divide in the United States between law enforcement and black Americans shows that our country is still grappling with a troubled past when it comes to race” (Pegues 2017:99). The “troubled past” this quote refers to are the slave patrols in the colonial and antebellum periods of U.S. history and the Jim Crow laws “which set different rules for blacks and whites…based on the theory of white supremacy” (Pegues 2017:100). Because of hundreds of years of oppressive regulations, laws, and policing techniques, the African American community not only distrusts most police departments but has also had to resort self-protection because they knew help would not be available outside their community. Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) points out that acknowledgment of racial bias must also include racism within the police ranks, not just racism between police officers and the community (208).
            The cliché “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is also symbolic about bad cops who ruin the reputation of their own police department and the entire law enforcement community. The Chicago Police Data Project found that police officers “with 10 or more complaints- make up about 10% of the force but receive 30% of all complaints” (Pegues 2017:229). Another way to root out bad cops is the prevention of bad hires in the first place. Various entities quoted within this book mentioned that hiring standards for police officers needed to be increased: stricter psychological testing, increased salaries for police officers, and continuous training which includes: “bias awareness, crisis intervention, mental health issues, interpersonal and communication skills” (Pegues 2017:135) just to name a few, and police departments need to acknowledge that not every police academy candidate is mentally capable be a police officer. Local government officials also need to view police as “critical infrastructure… If we don’t invest in our infrastructure, what happens? It breaks down” (Pegues 2017:133). Finally, Pegues believes there must be civil, open dialogue between the police and the local African American community to build trust with one another. This tenuous trust must be sustained through continuous positive interactions between African Americans and law enforcement.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Tastes of Paradise

Title: Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants
Author: Wolfgang Schivelbusch
Genre: non-fiction, food and culture, food history, history, European history

**This review has been adapted from a reflective essay I wrote for my Modern World Civilization class**

            Spices and stimulants that are commonplace to twenty-first century Westerners were considered luxury items in medieval times and the early modern era: pepper, chocolate, tea, coffee, tobacco, and opium. I was surprised to read in Tastes of Paradise about the various controversies surrounding most of these items- who would have thought that chocolate and coffee had negative connotations and superstitions surrounding them? Even politics and the overall culture of a country played a part in who was able to enjoy these delicious bits of happiness.
Spices were used in medieval times in medicinal preparations and as social clues to denote a household’s rank in the social hierarchy: “The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices” (4). In addition to being consumed in great quantities, spices were given as gifts between members of the nobility and sometimes used in lieu of cash payments (7). The long journey from India to Europe increased spices’ monetary value and added to spices’ allure as “emissaries from a fabled world” (6), especially in a time where very few Europeans traveled outside of their native homeland. The nobility and elite of Europe also used spices as a way to separate themselves from their common subjects- the poor souls who could not afford the expense of spices and whose status in the social hierarchy could not be “tasted” or shown to others (7).
            The use of spices by the European elite paralleled the elite’s new focus on “style”- clothes, home furnishings, etc.- all of which were supplied through Arabic traders throughout the Orient. The author compares the early modern era dependence on Arabic spice trading with the modern Western world’s dependence on Arab oil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (9)- which brought to my mind the quote: “the more things change, the more they stay the same. Eventually the middle class in Europe expanded along with the demand for spices as the expanding middle class tried to emulate their wealthier contemporaries (10-11). High demand, high tariffs, and high prices along with increased understanding of sailing technology prompted European explorers (and their wealthy investors) to search for a direct sea route to India (10-11). By cutting out the Arabic traders/middlemen, Europeans hoped to decrease the prices of spices while keeping up with demand on the Continent: “Whoever controlled pepper would essentially control the purse-strings of a continent” (11-12).
            Views on alcohol in Europe swung from one extreme to the other from medieval time to the age of encounter. In medieval times alcohol, especially beer, was consumed daily “as the main source of nourishment for most central European and northern Europeans (22). Daily consumption started with beer soup for breakfast and continued throughout the day. Alcoholic beverages were also heavily consumed during special occasions and holidays. The common consumption of alcohol mixed with obligatory social drinking rites meant that intoxication was rampant. Intoxication was considered normalized behavior until the Protestant Reformation redefined man’s relationship with God and, by extension, alcohol (31).
            While Protestant attitudes towards alcohol were changing, coffee was becoming readily available as a substitute for alcohol. While alcohol numbed one to the miseries of life, the caffeine in coffee encouraged sobriety (35), increased efficiency and energy (39), and was believed to curb sexual libido (37): “It marked the start of the working day, formally putting an end to the night’s rest, and making its drinkers alert and cheerful for the day ahead” (63). Energy and efficiency were core virtues of the Protestant work ethic, thus, coffee became a popular non-alcoholic beverage in the Protestant-dominant countries of England and Germany.
            While chocolate is a beloved ingredient around the world now, chocolate was imported from the New World into predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain. Chocolate was originally used by the Spanish clergy as a “fasting drink” (91) during religious holidays but it soon became a status symbol of the aristocracy (91). When chocolate entered the world of the aristocracy it was a rich, sumptuous breakfast beverage that “created an intermediary state between lying down and sitting up” (91). Chocolate was the antithesis to coffee: it relaxed the body, was high in calories, and believed to be an aphrodisiac (perhaps that is why chocolate is a traditional Valentine’s Day gift?) (92). The status of chocolate declined in the nineteenth century as its popularity rose among the middle class: “The former status drink of the ancient régime had sunk to world of women and children. What formerly symbolized power and glory was now in the hands of those excluded from power and responsibility in middle-class society” (93).
            The Columbian exchange brought tobacco and its new way of consumption (smoking) to Europe during the Era of Encounter. Originally tobacco use was referred to as “drinking smoke” or “drinking tobacco” since European cultures had no point of reference or name for this new recreational habit: “The analogy with drinking was thus first a conceptual aid for grasping an otherwise bewildering novelty” (97). The medical view of tobacco was similar to that of alcohol: it dulled the senses, thought to be an anti-erotic agent, and first-time use could be an unpleasant experience. Since smoking calmed the nerves, the rituals around smoking tobacco focused on preparing one’s mental activity and concentration.
            As each smoking process (pipe, cigar, cigarette, etc.) grew in popularity, the actual time spent on smoking and its accompanying rituals decreased (111). Schivelbusch theorizes that the modes and amount of smoking in a society reveal that society’s “standards of tranquility and concentration” (115) and “demonstrates to what depth the culture is permeated by nervousness” (129). I thought this was an intriguing correlation. Often attributed to world events, social factors, or personality traits, anxiety seems to be at an all-time high in American society. What if American anxiety levels are so high because Americans are smoking less? If this is true, it is a terrible trade-off though- smoke now and be calm, die of lung cancer later.
            Opium was a commonly prescribed painkiller in the nineteenth century and used for a variety of mild or easily treatable medical conditions. Opium was the drug of choice of for poets, artists, and writers since it infused their artwork and writings with a dreamlike quality. Society viewed the lone wolf tendencies and mindsets of these artists and writers as dangerous: “It was the asocial significance attributed by poets to opium and hashish which first caused them to lose their identity as ordinary household remedies” (210). Awareness of the negative consequences of addiction due to the post-war morphine addicts of the various nineteenth century wars stripped away the glamor and appeal of opium.
            Another habit that was frowned upon by the upper and middle classes was the excessive consumption of distilled spirits (hard liquor). Of course, the definition of excessive consumption is subjective; what the upper and middle classes thought of as distasteful was the source of bonding among members of the lower working classes: “Drink and drunkenness carried no social stigma; on the contrary, they were almost a symbol of class identity” (149). The working classes consumed their alcohol in loud, public places while middle class drinking subscribed to a more moderate mindset: “The middle-class citizen drank moderately, and he drank in a private circle” (148). Excessive drinking was also a form of escapism for the lower working classes- industrialization increased the physical and mental energy expected of workers without an appropriate increase in pay or rest. Many urban workers had migrated from the countryside for economic opportunity only to find themselves living in squalid living conditions and without the financial and emotional support of their extended family network.
            Like spices, liquor was originally used in medicinal preparations but it was also used in the military as part of a soldier’s rations before finding its way into civilian life during the Industrial Revolution. “Liquor… created new qualities of alcoholic inebriation, just as coffee created new qualities of sobriety. The polarity of these effects was reflected in the polarity of the two classes that adopted these drinks” (152). Liquor sped up the inebriation process which Schivelbusch parallels to the “processes of acceleration of the modern age” (153). Wine and beer were looked upon more favorably (by the upper classes) as acceptable forms of alcohol for the lower classes- these drinks kept the social and political bonds alive for the working masses without the constant and debilitating drunkenness (165).
            After reading this book it is my opinion that coffee had the most positive effect on Europe and world history (personally, I am a chocoholic so this was hard to admit). Coffee consumption increases a person’s physical energy level and mental prowess (temporarily). Increased physical and mental energy was needed in the Industrial Revolution to increase efficiency, production, and consumption. Coffee also contributed to the field of journalism, discourse, and free thought- coffeehouses were the precursors to newspapers and were available to the common man, although, unfortunately, not to the common woman (57). Although coffee consumption eventually moved to the domestic sphere, newspapers, literature, and journalism stayed in the public sphere and contributed to the Western ideals of free speech and free thought.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Title: The Handmaid's Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: dystopian, books on TV

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that has been on my to-read list for years- numerous friends have recommended it to me and discussions about this book have bounced around on Facebook for the past year or so. I finally moved this book to the top of my currently reading list after Hulu released a TV adaptation of the novel.


The events in The Handmaid’s Tale take place in the United States in the not too-distant future (the novel was written in the 1980s but is still relevant 30 years later). Congress has been disbanded and the Constitution overruled by a group of elitists that set up a theocracy and rename the United States as the Republic of Gilead. This theocracy is also highly patriarchal- they reduce women’s freedoms one by one- in one day it becomes illegal for women to work outside the home and all their financial assets and credit cards are frozen. Add to this mix social instability due to environmental disasters that have contributed to declining birth rates.

This patriarchal theocracy also believes in and enforces strict gender roles according to their interpretation of the Bible. The theocratic government, set up by a group called “The Sons of Jacob” round up fertile women, separate them from their families, and force these women to become Handmaids to the childless elite. Childbearing by these Handmaids is placed on a pedestal in this society- there is a once-a-month ceremony where the male head of household has forced sex with his Handmaid- with the Wife in the room, holding down the Handmaid’s hands (yep, the Wife is in the room, sitting in the same bed. Pervy, no?). The Sons of Jacob cite Biblical precedent for this as well: “And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 1-3, King James Version). The Sons of Jacob seem to forget all the drama and jealousy this caused between Jacob and the women in his life…

Life for Handmaids in The Republic of Gilead, as you can imagine, Is not kind. They are stripped of their former identity- a Handmaid’s name changes depending on which house she is assigned to; the Handmaids wear a uniform of red dresses (to signal their fertility and special status in Gilead). Women in Gilead are not allowed to read or write and are separated by a strict hierarchy based on fertility status and/or age. Young, fertile women become Handmaids, Marthas are childless women placed in servile roles, the Aunts are childless women who train the Handmaids on their roles and life within Gilead, enforce the rules, and deliver punishments. Older women or women that are viewed as corrupting influences or untrainable are sent to the Colonies to clean up nuclear waste or engage in backbreaking labor picking crops. Lesbians are branded as “gender traitors” and are usually executed by hanging.

In the book, these changes happened slowly over decades while in the TV show these changes happened in a shorter period of time. In the book, The Commander and Serena Joy are older with wrinkles; in the TV show they are around the same as our protagonist, Offred. Offred’s name from before is never mentioned in the book; on the show she confesses her birth name as June. In the book Offred/June never sees her husband again after her kidnapping and assumes he is dead. In the TV show we see Luke escape to Canada and rebuild his life while holding out hope that he will be reunited with June. The book and the TV show both end on a cliffhanger- Offred/June is taken away from the Waterfords but the reader/viewer doesn’t really know if it’s to her doom or newfound freedom.

I have mixed feelings about this dystopian novel- it’s not action-packed, the reader spends time in the protagonist’s head. After the cliffhanger there is an epilogue that takes place 200 years in the future and the epilogue is basically a transcript of a Canadian college conference on “Gileadan Studies.” I found this change in point of view to be jarring and a bit of a head scratcher- it doesn’t really answer the cliffhanger question. A friend of mine who has read the book thought that the point of the epilogue might be to point out that such regimes and extremism is temporary.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Title: 1984
Author: George Orwell
Genre: dystopian fiction

I have a confession to make. I have never read the dystopian classic, 1984. Given the peculiar political climate in the US lately, I decided that now might be a good time to read the novel. It’s (obviously) set in 1984 London and the protagonist is Winston Smith. Winston decides out of the blue one day to keep a diary. Keeping a diary in this version of dystopian London is dangerous and illegal and Winston finds that he must enter his thoughts and musings in the blind spot of his home’s telescreen. The illegal diary begins a domino effect in Winston’s thoughts and behaviors that allow him to question everything in this society.

In this world, there are no one-dimensional televisions; the telescreens are a surveillance tool of the Party (Big Brother). The Party controls the population through the destruction and revision of the past; the past is rewritten so that the Party can take credit for accomplishments, victories, and inventions: “If all records told the same tale then the lie passed into history and became truth. Who controls the past controls the future?” Of course, if a citizen remembered an event that differed from the party line (pun intended), “how could establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?”

The erasure of the past is assisted by the removal of all physical and written references to statues, memorials, and historical markers and all original records are modified and destroyed to reflect the new truth of the Party. Scraps of paper are discarded and incinerated immediately- can’t have any contradictory evidence hanging about, you know. The Party even changes the structure of the English language, truncating it as much as possible to that multiple definitions and nuances cease to exist. Speaking of ceasing to exist…in this world rebels and thought criminals are vaporized. Once a person disappears all records of their existence are erased and they briefly become an unperson before memories fade. 

Marriage is no longer a religious ceremony or an act of love but a duty to the Party since any children born of this union are the future of the Party. Solitude and individualism are looked down upon- all extracurricular activities and free time are expected to be used in service of the Party.
As if all this wasn’t depressing enough but Oceania (yep, countries and alliances have changed too), is constantly at war with her (supposed) enemies; in a war in which no progress is ever made. Winston finds out that this continuous state of war is a conspiracy to decrease wealth and upward social mobility among the common people.

So, all these plot points sound exciting for a dystopian novel but I found George Orwell’s writing style boring and I felt the book ended too abruptly and with no change in atmosphere or events than from the beginning of the novel (no hero’s journey). As a result, it has taken me most of the summer to read this book since there were more interesting books to read. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reading Hangover

Image result for sheldon i need answers

Title: Written in My Own Heart's Blood
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Genre: time travel, historical fiction, romance, adventure, books on TV

You see the above meme? (Sheldon from Big Bang Theory). This was me this past week. When I need answers while I'm doing my fun reading, I end up with a reading hangover the next day. What’s a reading hangover, you ask? It’s the sluggish feeling you have the next day after staying up too late instead of getting much needed sleep for work. Disclaimer: reading hangovers only happen when a person stays up too late because of “fun reading” (homework doesn’t count).
 I am reading the Outlander series and I finished reading Book 8 (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) today. This series deals with time travel (but not in a nerdy, technical, sci-fi way) and this is what I've had to deal with and why I also need answers at 1am....

**Some spoilers ahead**

 Seriously, if you have not read the first seven books, turn back now!

Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

*Claire Randall accidentally time travels from 1948 to 1743
*Claire travels back to 1948 to escape the Jacobite rebellion
*In 1968 Claire travels back to the 1760s to reunite with Jamie Fraser
*Her daughter Brianna travels back to the 1700s to be with Claire.
*Brianna's boyfriend, Roger, also travels back in time to the 1700s
*Now everyone is together in the mountains of NC
*Brianna and Roger have two kids but little Mandy is born with a heart defect so they must travel (backwards/forwards?) into the late 1970s so that Mandy can have surgery

So, in Book 8 Brianna and Roger’s son, Jem, gets kidnapped and Roger and Brianna think his kidnapper has taken back to the 1700s so off Roger goes to the 1700s
*At this point the reader knows that Jem is still in 1980 but Brianna and the kids are separated from Roger by two centuries and this is WHERE I DON"T NEED SLEEP FOR WORK, I NEED ANSWERS!!!
*Roger ends up going back too early and ends up in Scotland in 1739. He meets Jamie’s father, uncle and sister before tragic things befell the Fraser clan. He knows what’s going to happen to them but he can’t do anything about it or warn them because it will change the future and how Jamie and Claire meet….

This series had been on my to-read list for years- multiple people had recommended it to me but I never found the time to tackle the series until the books were turned into a TV show for the Starz network two years ago. I watched the first episode and was hooked; I checked out the first book in the series (Outlander) was hooked on that as well. Along with all the time traveling that keeps me up at night, is some buried treasure (seriously), the American Revolution (the battle scenes can get tedious if you’re not a fan of military science and strategy), some Scottish/American culture and a bit of romance. The books are HUGE (they are each approximately 800 pages)- they will make you laugh and cry. Keep the tissues handy as well as Google Translate for the French, Gaelic, and Latin phrases that are sprinkled throughout.