Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feed, by Mira Grant

Many times reading Mira Grant's novel I thought about how eerily similar the tone was to our current political climate. It doesn't speak well for us that her story of a journalist covering a presidential candidate takes place well into zombie apocalypse.  The year is 2039 and zombies have roamed the earth since approx 2012 - our heroine, Georgia, has known no other reality.  Georgia and her brother, Shaun, are bloggers - more respected than the "traditional" journalists of the day because bloggers were quicker to catch on to the zombie outbreak and provide real tips for survival. They've been chosen (with their partner, Buffy) to follow the favored Republican presidential candidate. I'm curious why she wrote the candidate as a Republican, he doesn't seem to have any particular agenda - although some of his colleagues espouse the politics of the religious right and sorAt of extreme measures when it comes to land management and well... zombie management.  For example, some politicians want to burn and bleach the national parks to rid all infestation of animals (any animal over 40 pounds can carry and pass the virus.)

Grant, the nom de plume of Seanan McGuire, is obviously an epidemiology geek and, I suspect, something of a policy wonk and allows the space in Feed to really dive into the details of what her zombie universe looks like - how the virus developed, how society would change and what kind of laws would exist in such a world.  She goes deep into adaptions in technology to detect the virus, and architectural changes to coral and isolate.  If the idea of delving hard core into the inner workings of the CDC during a zombie apocalypse sounds fascinating to you, my friend, this is Your Book.  There are three books in the "Newsflesh" series.  I'll probably take a pass on the next two, but I was definitely entertained for a few hours with Feed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress is the birthing of a detective.  Easy Rawlins accepts a job to find a woman because he needs the money, and finds that the steps he needs to follow to track her down come naturally to him.  It's a detektivlerroman - a word I possibly just made up, sure, but accurate.

I used to read a lot of Dashiell Hammett but finally got tired of the racism and called it quits. Raymond Chandler is also, basically, unreadable, being ridiculous.  As the attendant reader of the blog knows, my mysteries are British, and written by ladies.  But, I heard this great interview on NPR with Walter Mosley and knew I had to give it a try.

Although first published in 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress takes place in 1948 Los Angeles and Mosley perfectly captures the "hardboiled" style of early detective novels (minus the racism and misogyny!) His hero, Easy, grew up a sharecropper, then entered the army and fought in WWII.  He and his fellow black soldiers were relegated to office jobs well behind the front line ("I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands."); the white soldiers called them cowards so he volunteered for combat. After the war, he managed to buy a very small house, his prized place of security.  The love of domicile allowed him to take a dubious job for a shady white dude.

Actually, there is racism in Mosley's novel - Easy confronts it constantly. He's accosted and abused by the police twice, he talks about the need to walk slowly in the dark, so he won't be considered suspicious. White people he encounters call him "boy" and "son".  And, when he meets a very wealthy white man, he has a slightly different experience.
    "I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man's office, talking to him like we were best friends - even closer. I could tell that he didn't have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
    It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
    It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn't even recognize our difference showed that he didn't care one damn about me."

It really is remarkable that this is Walter Mosley's first novel - it reads like it was penned by a seasoned mystery writer.  I'll be reading a lot more of his work!  What really slayed me while reading Devil in a Blue Dress was how Mosley was hitting all these high notes nearly 20 years ago in his first goddamn book - the things he addresses in this book are so topical today - institutionalized racism, police brutality, identity ... although, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that as a white reader, like many others, I've been blind to that rather obvious signals of pervasive racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront.  I'm sorry it's taken us so long to get here.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

I wish I could remember the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale (I remember how it made me feel, just not when it was). It must have been approximately 20 (!) years ago and, conservatively, I've read it at least 5-6 times.  It is My Favorite Book.  Margaret Atwood is My Favorite Author. And it is this book against which I judge all books.

It's recently come to my attention that not everyone KNOWS about The Handmaid's Tale book (WHAT) so, a brief synopsis: written by Canada's National Treasure, Margaret Atwood, who didn't include any details in this dystopian fiction that didn't have a historical precedent. The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman, Offred, living in Gilead in the former United States.  Handmaids are fertile woman who are impregnated for leaders of the Gilead community because a variety of causes have led to widespread infertility. 

I reread it last weekend because it's been a few years and also the show is on Hulu and also we're living in a dystopian nightmare and also why not.  Every time I read it I find something new, and, as I get older, the way I engage with it changes as well.  This time I noticed the repeated motif of eggs - how many eggs Offred eats, how she notices eggs, how she is a walking ovum, ready to be fertilized.  Atwood spends an incredible page and a half describing Offred's soft-boiled egg breakfast. They are words of singular beauty and elegance.

Earlier this year I saw this tweet that really made me laugh but is also true:
Offred isn't waging a revolution - she wants to survive and stay alive, so she's not sticking her neck out.  What's interesting in Offred's point of view that she knew what life was like before (similar to life now) and is experiencing the first wave of this new society.  The Aunts keep telling them "This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary."  I think one of the reasons people are so drawn to this book at this time in history is how quickly and quietly the citizens of the US rolled over and allowed the new regime to take over - first everyone was eager to allow for decreased freedoms in the wake of a terrorist account for the sake of "safety" (as we saw after 9/11) and then there came a point when protesters were simply killed - a terrifying tipping point of which the precipice feels ever closer.
image from the 2017 Women's March

There were hardly any notes in my 1986 hardback, signed (!!!!) edition (maybe 3rd?), but I tentatively put some in, in pencil, after explaining to M that it was my most prized possession and needed to be pulled in case of fire (my fiction books are obviously organized by last name.)

A Few Spoilers Below

One of my favorite parts of the book is the end, the "Historical Notes" which I didn't read for a few days after finishing the book the first time because I thought they were just the sort of boring notes that are sometimes included at the end of a book.  While the entirety of the preceding pages is from Offred's POV, suddenly the language and tone changes abruptly to some time in the future (the year 2195, actually) at a keynote session at a conference in Nunavit (Northern Canada) where is is revealed there are "Gilead" and "Caucasian" studies, those concepts being, presumably, inexistent by that time.  The speaker discusses the difficulty in authenticating the narrative (contained on a series of cassette tapes, in a bit of charming anachronism), and with what feels like agonizing academic distance, considering what we've just gone through with Offred, discusses the possible fates that awaited her, if indeed the tapes were truly authentic.

What jumped out at me this reading was how the male speaker, presumably of Inuit heritage (his name is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto), in the year 2195 (for fucksake), is still subtly undermining the female experience.  For example, he says that the title is a pun, "... having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail, that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats."  Similarly, he refers to "The Underground Femaleroad" as "The Underground Frailroad."  What Atwood does, again and again, is remind the reader there is no safe place. Inuit academics several hundred years in the future are not benevolent truth-tellers, they are just slightly sympathetic historians who crack dumb jokes. All women are not victims in this story - some women are the horrible propagators of terror and state-sponsored rape.

Throughout Offred's entire awful experience, her most violent reaction is to the sight of Aunt Lydia.  Not learning about her mother's death, not watching a child taken straight from a women's vagina to another woman, not seeing people hanging in the streets or the nauseating "Salvaging" in which the handmaids are forced to share complicity with netted punishment.  "I've begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit."  That's what the sight of Aunt Lydia does to her.  I think it's the active cruelty of Aunt Lydia to the handmaids, specifically as a woman to other women, that causes this visceral reaction in Offred.  Cruelty of women towards women is a not uncommon theme in Atwood's books, and it serves a cold reminder that, unfortunately, some women don't support their sisters they way they should.  The side-effects of a paternalist society, say I - although I'm not entirely sure Atwood would agree with me.  For a long time, Atwood was reticent to call herself or the book "feminist" (although I think she's finally come around on that) and she certainly doesn't like to refer to the book as "science fiction" but rather "speculative fiction."  Fair enough, she's 77 years old and she's written one of the greatest books of the 20th century.  She can do what she wants.