Literary Inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale

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When I was a younger woman (young enough to be an ignorant git, but old enough to know better) I studied The Handmaid’s Tale.  I was assigned Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel across a number of different English classes in both high school and university, and true to the nitwit form I spoke about in relation to Fahrenheit 451, it did not leave much of an impression with me.  Frankly, I don’t think I wanted it to, so fundamentally disturbed was I with the nightmare world that Atwood was presenting – the thought that I could be reduced to nothing more than the functioning of my womb was so utterly incomprehensible, it was not even worth thinking about.

But the times, they have changed.  Part of it is that I’m older now, and infinitely more thoughtful.  Too thoughtful – stories like The Handmaid’s Tale have a knack for burrowing deep into my brain, allowing me plenty of time to ruminate on the all too plausible possibilities of Life on Gilead.  I’m also more engaged with the world around me (not hard; I was, quite shamefully, not the most critical of thinkers in my early teens) and what I’m seeing scares the ever living shit out of me.  Here in North America (predominately south of the Canadian border, but still) hard-won gains in the areas of gender equality, women’s rights and reproductive rights are being walked back every single day.  The president of the United States is an admitted sexual abuser, and the fundamentalist vice president would sooner catapult me into the sun than speak to me directly, lest I tempt him with Satan’s forbidden fruit.  If that doesn’t sound very much like one of the Handmaid’s recollections of what immediately preceded the total collapse of American society, I really don’t know what does.

That horrific bit of anti-mimesis (life imitating art) is at present best demonstrated by the immense popularity of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.  I am beyond curious about this show, would very much like to watch it, but I know I can’t – I don’t care for either misery porn or torture porn in my entertainment, and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale deals in both areas frequently.

But with The Handmaid’s Tale very much on my mind, and with my friends’ reading challenge prompting me to pick up a secondhand book (this 20-year-old university bookstore-procured novel is definitely on its second, or maybe even third or fourth, hand) the time felt right to read it, really read it, and enjoy both the joy and utter terror that is born of informed reading.  The More You Know.

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The plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale are well known.  It’s the mid-1980s, and following an attack on Congress that claims the lives of most of the upper tiers of government, democratic rule is suspended, and then altogether abolished.  A group of theological extremists known as the Republic of Gilead eagerly step into the power vacuum created by this loss, brazenly reshaping the United States in their murderous, totalitarian image.  Women are separated from their families, rounded up and sorted into various colour-coded castes – baby blue for revered wives of Gilead’s commanders, muddy green for domestic-minded Marthas and blood red for Gilead’s “most precious” of human resources, the child-bearing handmaids.  Unwomen, women unable to bear children due to age or health, are assigned no colour; they’re simply sent off to the nuclear wasteland known as the Colonies to toil alongside other “criminals” until they drop dead from exposure.  Men who aren’t lucky enough to be one of Gilead’s “commanders” fare no better than their female counterparts – it’s very much a “Get in line or be executed” kind of regime – but if they aren’t a liberal or an academic or a scientist or gay or of any denomination other than Gileadean, they might be rewarded with a drafty room in a guest house and a choice new career washing some extremist bastard’s car.  But the women – all of them, no matter their distinguishing hue, or lack thereof – are subjugated, diminished and much, much worse.

In Gilead, everyone has a job – the wives passively alternate between smoking, loathing their husbands and knitting scarves for soldiers on a non-existent front line, the commanders pretend they’re big shots and weren’t entry level managers at some mid-level bank just four years ago (in between balling everything they can get their arthritis-riddled hands on at Jezebel’s) and the handmaids are forcibly raped every 30 days by both.  It’s a cruel indecency delivered on unwilling victims month after month after month in the name of “survival of the species” – everyone knows the bitter, husked-out wives are barren, it’s a fact, just as everyone knows the commanders are testosterone-saturated marvels of virility that could impregnate a marble statue at 10 paces.  Why waste all that human potential?  Simply enslave yourself a walking womb and you, too, can have a shredder in eight and a half to nine months!  Act now and we’ll throw in a free trip to the Colonies; can’t beat that!

Between all of the wild abuses of human rights, corporal punishment, religious hypocrisy, ultra far right extremism, torture and sexual abuse, there isn’t a lot of enjoyment to be derived from reading The Handmaid’s Tale.  Yet I enjoyed it very much, now at this time in my life when I can finally appreciate it, although for reasons not entirely related to the story itself.

For me, this one’s all about the writing.  I love Margaret Atwood’s style; it’s spare without being sparse, direct without being pandering, brutal without being sensationalist.  It takes an immensely gifted author to weave such viscerally unpleasant subjects into a compelling, respectful tale.  I can think of very few writers who have pulled off such a delicate balancing act.  There’s nothing about this novel that’s not soul crushingly bleak, but there’s a kind of beauty in the Handmaid’s raw retelling of the life she led “before” versus now, even as you wonder how anyone could continue on in such circumstances.  I really, really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and was alternately delighted AND horrified to learn that I finally now “get it.”  How much I wish I didn’t.

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Because accompanying nail art is sort of the point of this Literary Inspiration series, I had the rather unenviable task of creating a manicure inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale.  Here I ran into a similar problem I faced when reviewing my favourite novel, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  It’s all right there in the title.  So how exactly does one go about creating respectful (?) nail art around such literary unpleasantness?  In that case I went less with a literal interpretation of the novel, eventually creating a manicure that I thought captured the overall feeling of the book, if not the details contained therein.  But for this Handmaid’s manicure, I went with a straight interpretation of the text, eventually landing on this delicate design of dandelion fluff as against a blood red background, inspired by a passage in which the Handmaid thinks of her young daughter Hannah, who she has not seen since they were violently separated trying to flee the United States, playing with dandelions.

“Not a dandelion in sight here, the lawns are picked clean.  I long for one, just one, rubbishy and insolently random and hard to get rid of and perennially yellow as the sun.  Cheerful and plebian, shining for all alike.  Rings, we would make from them, and crowns and necklaces, stains from the bitter milk on our fingers.  Or I’d hold one under her chin: Do you like butter?  Smelling them, she’d get pollen on her nose.  (Or was that buttercups?)  Or gone to seed: I can see her, running across the lawn, that lawn there just in front of me, at two, three years old, waving one like a sparkler, a small wand of white fire, the air filling with tiny parachutes.  Blow, and you tell the time.  All that time, blowing away in the summer breeze.  It was daisies for love though, and we did that too.”

No daisies, no love, no dandelions, and nothing but time.  The Handmaid’s Tale is too cruel, too devastating, too current, but all the same, it had to be reread, and I’m glad I did.  Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

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Chillin’ Like a Villain: Poor Unfortunate Souls

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Because baddies need ear love, too!  Kicking off the week here at Finger Candy by highlighting showing off these stupendous Ursula mouse ears I recently purchased from Etsy vendor Mouseket Ears Bowtique.  They are THE coolest ears I’ve ever seen, and I can already tell you that when I wear them on our upcoming trip to Disney at Halloween (or perhaps even before then…) I won’t be able to take three steps without somebody excitedly asking where I nabbed ’em.  And you just know I had to do a matching mani to go along with this beautiful headband, as well as a rather cadaverous-looking (but no doubt Ursula-approved) lip.

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Mouse ears, or Minnie ear headbands, as they’re often called, are a relatively new thing in my life.  I’ve always admired all of the people bombing around the parks in an ever-changing assortment of mouse ear’d headpieces, but as a lifelong sufferer of both random headaches and nuclear migraines, anything that put pressure on any part of my head (see also toques, soft headbands, some baseball hats, helmets, goggles, etc.) was pretty well off limits.  But (*knock on wood*) that no longer seems to be quite the issue it used to be, and now it’s a frickin’ ear-a-palooza!  These Ursula ears (and an accompanying order-mate I’ll proudly show off in another couple of days) are actually my fourth pair.

Minnie ear headbands come in two varieties, official Disney styles, like these Sally ears I purchased at Hollywood Studios last year, or indie, like my beloved new Ursula ears.  The Disney Parks ears are great, nicely made and not too pricey, but mass, mass produced – you will absolutely see these ears adorning the heads of another 20,000 of your newest and bestest theme park buddies.  But if you’re looking for something a little different, ears that will set you apart from the rest of the crowd, or perhaps even a custom creation, you can’t go wrong with Etsy.

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And I’m now so pleased to report that you can’t go wrong with Mouseket Ears Bowtique.  These ears are just so beautiful in every sense of the word – sturdy and comfortably weighty, like they won’t just topple off your head in the slightest breeze, and so, so gorgeous!  The attention to detail (that fish bone quill on the back!) is incredible.  And with a nice little bit of padding in the band, in addition to well balanced details atop the band, they’re also unexpectedly comfortable.  I’m completely smitten. 🙂 And not for nothing, but the thought of running around with Triton’s ill-gotten crown atop my noggin, nestled between those searching, glittery tentacles, is quite tantalizing.  Think I can’t rule the seas?  Watch me, T!  And also please watch this blog in the coming days for that second pair of ears, which I may be even more excited about than these (spoiler: He uses antlers in all of his DE-CO-RA-TING!)

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Fireflies

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Or: When Good Ideas Go Stupid!  So here’s how this mani was supposed to play out.  First, paint on a starry night background.  Then, using a dotting tool, randomly dot on white polish for your “fireflies.”  Once dry, top the white polish with neon yellow polish.  Now your fireflies are glowing!  Then, using a detail brush dipped in acetone, apply a bead to the top of each neon yellow dot.  What’s supposed to happen next is the acetone spreads out, taking a bit of that neon yellow polish with it, depositing it in a sort of glowing corona of light around your dotted-on fireflies.  I’ve seen this technique used multiple times in various tutorials, and they always make it seem like it’s just the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.

But guess what?  It totally wasn’t!  Oh sure, the actual nail art-ing part went fine, but when it came time to drop that little bead of acetone onto my nails, it stayed resolutely put, burning a neat little hole through each of the dotted-on fireflies, straight down to the base polish.  In desperation, I finally began dunking my detail brush into acetone and then into the neon yellow polish in an attempt to create a kind of neon yellow wash to encircle the fireflies.  And that’s where I left it!  I don’t think these nails are great, and the technique as described is not one I’ll be returning to, but hey, the more you know, right?

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Dinglehopper

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Also known as Ariel, the Little Mermaid’s styling tool of choice.  Dang, that girl manages to look so great given all the DIY fashion she’s got going on (shells, dinglehoppers, fetching burlap sacks.)  Prince Eric is such a dummy, though – Ariel really shouldn’t waste her hotness on him.  She’d seriously be better off with the crustacean-murdering chef at his castle.  Or one of Ursula’s eels.  Eric is totally the worst!

I think this post may have gotten away from me a bit. 😉  Just some mermaid nails for the summer solstice.  I’m sure Ariel’s enjoying the extra daylight hours.  To the rest of the summer!

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This Floral Bower My Prison

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Hmm, may have mangled the title of that poem a bit.  I’m thinking, of course, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, which he wrote in — ha, for half a second I was about to write “1997” but nope, this one dropped in 1797.  I studied this poem in university under a wonderful professor who approached the poetry of the Victorian era like a lesson in modern celebrity gossip.  In particular, I loved her take on Coleridge and This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, in which Coleridge, a Romance poet and philosopher afflicted with a debilitating hunchback, hangs back at home, morosely wandering about the titular lime tree bower, while his more able-bodied friends head out for an afternoon excursion in the country.

Physical limitations aside, Coleridge’s internal monologue is so unbelievably Eeyore-esque.  That he’s the better poet, the more reasoned, thoughtful and compassionate man than his close frenemy, the likewise talented but undeniably gorgeous and immensely popular William Wordsworth, is totally besides the point – that surely because of his unfortunate physical affliction and what just HAS to be his own searing unpopularity, he’s been once again relegated to the kids’ table while Wordsworth gallivants across the countryside like a Victorian era rock star.  It’s actually quite emo.  You really feel for the man; can’t have been easy being the socially maladjusted bestie to the guy everyone wanted to be and/or shag.

These are not lime bowers.  Boughs?  Are bowers boughs that have been arranged into the shape of a, um, bower?  I feel like we may have gone a bit snake-eating-its-own-tail here.  They’re boughs.  Of flowers.  Not bowers. 😉

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Literary Inspiration: Fahrenheit 451

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Continuing my run of thoroughly depressing dystopian lit, this manicure was inspired by the latest book I’ve read in service of my friends’ reading challenge, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Banned books was the theme, although I actually couldn’t find it on any roundups of the usual verboten subjects.  I’ve no doubt it’s been banned, though, in pockets all across the world, time and time again, staggering irony notwithstanding.  I think Fahrenheit 451 will always be a lightning rod for that kind of attention, though I couldn’t find any major examples.  But I did think an entire novel about the violent destruction of written material and, by extension, the very essence of critical thought would more than suffice for the purposes of this challenge prompt.

Along with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (the super feelgood book I’m reading right now) I read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in grade 9.  And I understood the import of the underlying themes of both about as well as you would imagine, which is to say I was utterly clueless.  “Well, that’s bad,” I naively thought, “you shouldn’t burn books.”  And that’s about as deep as my critical assessment went of a world in which the written or recorded word has been banned, mindless reality TV reigns supreme and squadrons of “firemen” are dispatched to the homes of uncooperative citizens to violently torch their secret libraries.  I’m actually rather ashamed at how little thought I gave this all-too plausible nightmare, often a problem with material that has been assigned as school work – school books = ultimate boredom in most matriculating minds.

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But one thing that hasn’t changed between then and now is I still don’t like Fahrenheit 451.  A large part of the problem I have with the novel lies with its protagonist, a by-the-books (pun intended) fireman by the name of Montag in the midst of a major identity crisis – after a chance encounter with a quirky neighbour named Clarisse, a young woman filled to the brim with all of the whos, whats, wheres and whens sorely absent from Montag’s sterile life, he begins to question his purpose as a fireman, and indeed the very purpose of humanity itself.  If it sounds like weighty stuff, that’s because it is, and Montag barrels into his new role as a rebel agitator with very little care or forethought, dragging literally everyone into his unhinged, treasonous orbit – a kindly old academic, his deeply disassociated wife and his boss, the fire chief.  With the exception of the old academic, who simply has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these are terrible, craven people (maybe not Beatty, the scripture, prose and poetry-quoting police chief who willingly walks into his own demise) and they deserve their fiery ends.

But might Montag not also deserve such an end simply for being such such an unrelentingly insufferable know-it-all?  I mean, sure, you’ve got the violent autocrats on one side, the sort of people who use a robot called the Hound, a kind of euthanasia machine on legs, to unilaterally mete out their warped vision of justice, and on the other you’ve got a guy who’s really just overly enthusiastic about a thing he only just learned about yesterday, but somehow, the newbie is worse.  Montag is that guy who reads an article about cryptocurrency in the Economist whilst waiting for the dentist, only to go home and bankrupt the next four generations of his family purchasing mining gear.  He doesn’t think through anything, and he delights in throwing his newfound enlightenment in the alternately shocked and uncaring faces of his friends and family acquaintances and colleagues.  He’s drunk on knowledge and about as insufferable as a second year J-school student, a most dangerous state to find yourself in when cunning, stealth and careful planning are paramount to your very survival.  He’s Nicholas Cage screaming his blasted head off as he and ultra calm Sean Connery break out of Alcatraz in The Rock; the man just has absolutely no chill, not even when lives are on the line.

And as it’s through Montag’s lens that we get the story of Fahrenheit 451, it stands to reason that I’d then find the novel to play out like one giant lecture.  It’s groundbreaking work, to be sure, both at the time of its original publishing in 1953 and somehow still now, but it feels weighted down by its own self-importance.  Montag?  More like Mon-nag.  Heh.

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My copy also contains numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes, editing errors that make this insufferable J-school grad cringe, but also sort of wonder if this, too, was some sort of commentary on the unavailing nature of the written word – that it’s not the form the word takes, but rather the ultimate preservation of the word, the thought, the message.  Or maybe it was just crap editing.

This burned book manicure was great in theory, but perhaps ever so less successful in terms of execution.  I guess that’s what happens when you literally burn a book (hey, just a redundant page from one of TWO forewords, but I won’t lie and say I don’t LOVE the irony at work here) and stick it to your fingernails.  Things got quite messy, and this manicure is ultimately a marvel of creative photo editing.  There were also about nine different tense changes in those last three sentences – take THAT, Bradbury!  Immutability of the written word, my grammatically incorrect butt.  Clearly I’ve learned much since grade 9. 😉

Pop Workout

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I know these nails are quite random and a bit mental, but perhaps so is the basis for which I drew inspiration for this manicure – a favourite pair of workout pants.  Or rather, a favourite print on A pair of workout pants; the actual pants themselves are oddly cut and don’t look a thing like their photo on the website, so bit of a bust, that, even though I still wear them all the time.  I really love the print, though – all of those tightly packed polka dots, the overlapping designs and the bold mix of colours, a should-be-incongruous mix of light grey, red, sky blue, black, charcoal grey and neon yellow, lend these pants a very comic book sort of look.  It’s a very zippy pattern, which is key – I’ll take all the zip I can get when it’s treadmill time.

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