Literary Inspiration: 11/22/63

Sock Hop Collage

Kicking off the not-so-new year with another giant literary tome from Stephen King, master of the macabre, ninja of nostalgia and writer of the five-part non-ending.  I started reading 11/22/63 – “the one where he goes back in time and saves JFK” – at the end of 2018, but life events conspired to push its conclusion back into 2019, and so here we are, 800 some-odd (some very odd) pages later.  I gripe about King’s frequent inability to satisfactorily conclude his stories, but he’s my favourite author, and if he released an entire book of short stories written in binary code, I’d read that, too.  So a quiet little story about one man’s quest to alter the course of one very big event – with all the usual Kingsian complications in play – is riiiiiight in my literary wheelhouse.  Bring on the revisionist history!

But here’s the thing – for the daughter of a couple of hardcore Boomers, the kind of people who remember the day some combination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA and a grassy knoll in Texas assassinated John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, I know precious little about the actual event itself.  Nor have I ever felt the need to rectify that particular gap in my knowledge of American politics; it’s a world so far removed from mine, I’ve never cared to seek out those details.

That’s clearly not the case with King, who devotes nearly 900 pages to the subject of JFK’s assassination.  Sort of.  11/22/63 is not really about JFK at all, and it’s only nominally about his violent, greatly disputed death.  What 11/22/63 is actually about is love.  And dancing.

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The mostly spoiler-free details, and how this very retro manicure fits into the grander scheme of things: 11/22/63 begins not in 1963, nor does it start in 1958, where the wormhole that makes this a time travel story exists.  It actually starts in 2011 – in Maine, naturally – with 35-year-old high school English teacher Jake Epping.  Fresh off a contentious divorce to a woman who loved alcohol – and other men – a lot more than him, and experiencing diminishing returns on his many years as an educator, Jake is well positioned for a major life change.  That that change would come in the form of multiple, increasingly complex jaunts into the past via a wormhole in a smelly diner pantry is most likely not the kind of change Jake was envisioning, but the Kingsian world works in odd ways.

After being shown this rip in the fabric of time by diner owner and amateur time traveler Al Templeton (made ever so less impressive because of its physical location, situated between a dirty mop bucket on one side and a stack of canned goods on the other) Jake is tasked with returning to 1958, where he will live as a regular man of the time until November 22nd, 1963, when he will travel to Texas, kill Lee Harvey Oswald, save President John F. Kennedy and spare millions from the brutal political fallout sparked by his assassination.  Al would do it himself were it not for the fact that he’s dying – time travel plays real hell on a person’s condition.

Al is adamant that, partisan concerns aside, JFK must be saved; Democrat, Republican, Sock Puppet, the global repercussions of his death are just too great.  But Jake, who has read enough science fiction in his day, has concerns regarding Al’s proposed scheme.  Assuming he completes his mission and doesn’t die right there in the 1960s, how is he to return to 2011?  And if he does find his way back to 2011, what will he be returning to?  The Butterfly Effect posits that the world will not be the same, cannot be the same, given such incredible intervention.  Al assures him that he’s been back and forth hundreds of times – often for just a few hours, but sometimes for much, much longer – and aside from a hell of case of lung cancer he picked up on his last, years long trip, the world itself seemed to suffer no ill effects.

To that effect, Jake asks how he could have seen Al the day prior, happily (and more importantly, healthily) manning the counter at his diner, pushing his suspiciously inexpensive Fat Burgers, only for him to now be (barely) standing before him, wracked with stage 4 lung cancer.  Al replies that time moves differently in the past, ticking off days upon months upon years in the then while mere moments pass in the now.  Shrugging off Jake’s continued enquiries as to how any of this can possibly be, does he not feel the least bit conflicted about the irrevocable damage he may be inflicting on both the past and the present, Al replies that it’s not as irrevocable as Jake would think – the wormhole employs a kind of reset function that wipes the slate clean in the past every time Al returns to the present.  So no harm, no foul to the people of the past, and Al can continue getting the meat for his Fat Burgers at 1958 prices.

Feeling like he doesn’t have much of a choice, and also wondering what the hell else he’s going to do with his life, Jake takes the bait and steps through into 1958.

With nothing but time on his hands between his arrival in 1958 and his date with Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in 1963, Jake tries to acclimate to the time, finding it relatively easy.  Seems he wasn’t a man built for the modern era after all.  Upon discovering that he has reservations about the hows and whys of his task – does he really have to kill Oswald?  Can he not just divert him from his chosen path? – Jake conducts a couple of test cases, and discovers what could be 11/22/63’s overriding theme – the past is obdurate and will resist all attempts at change.  Jake frequently, and bitterly, addresses the Al who has taken up residence in his head, accusing him of radically underselling the ease, or lack thereof, of altering the very course of time.

With years to go until his main mission, Jake sets out to learn everything he can about Oswald, tracking his movements as he and his family move from Russia to the United States, even going so far as to bug his home.  Justifiably uneasy with the thought of killing an innocent man – but not necessarily a good man; Oswald is a certifiable piece of shit – Jake’s looking for proof irrefutable that Oswald done it, or will do it.

Then, once again looking for a way to pass the time, Jake moves to a small town outside of Texas, where he finds his real purpose in the past – friends that are like family, a meaningful career as a respected educator and mentor, and love.  And it’s that love, forged on a small town gymnasium dance floor by two giddy teachers showing off their best Lindy Hops, that alters the course of Jake’s trajectory in the past, and whether his present is even something worth returning to.

In the interest of not giving away too much of what amounts to a simple story about a man finding love in the most unexpected of places and times, I won’t say much more.  But these nails are a representation of 11/22/63’s other theme, which is that dancing is everything.  I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a manicure inspired by Jake and Sadie’s gleeful turn at the Hop.

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All in all, a very enjoyable read that had so much less to do with JFK than I thought possible for a book (nominally) about the assassination of said man.  Oh! and wonder of wonders, 11/22/63 has an ending, an actual, identifiable conclusion – and a satisfying one at that.  It was just a very sweet love story set within the more complex framework of time travel, and nicely showed off the softer side of our man Steve.  Aw, who knew King could get so warm and fuzzy?

By the by, I read this book in service of my blogging friends’ Jay and Julie’s 2019 reading challenge for the twelfth theme of “Shallowness: pick a book based on its spine appearance alone” because all 11/22/63 has its spine. 🙂

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Literary Inspiration: Blue Shoes and Happiness

Blue Shoes Collage

Sneaking a last minute reading challenge book and matching manicure in under the 2018 wire here with Blue Shoes and Happiness, an entry in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books by Alexander McCall Smith.

This gentle, deeply inoffensive little book about Precious Ramotswe, a lifelong resident of Botswana and proud founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, came as a recommendation from my mom, who could see, after the dense, multi-layered insanity that was Too Big to Fail, that I was in need of something with a softer touch.

Please don’t tell my mom, who adores this book series, but I…*lowers voice, glances about *…didn’t love Blue Shoes and Happiness.  Nothing happened!  There were some lovely descriptions of Botswana, and what the land means to Mma Ramotswe, a traditionally built (her words) rancher’s daughter besotted with her nation, but otherwise, it felt a bit soft, a bit simple.  Oh dear lord, PLEASE don’t let my mom see this; she will crap a brick if she sees I’ve besmirched her beloved books!

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I think part of my problem might be that I was thrown in the deep end of the No. 1 puddle; Blue Shoes and Happiness isn’t the first (or even the fifth) entry in the series.  Compounding this feeling of being wildly out of step with Mma Ramotswe’s world is the fact that events started in a previous book find closure in Blue Shoes and Happiness, whereas other events started in Blue Shoes and Happiness are left to be resolved in some later book.  The assumption here is that you will continue reading the next entry in the series to see how X situation is resolved, but you know what they say about assumptions.

The titular shoes in this case, and the inspiration for these simple nails, actually belong to Mma Ramotswe’s assistant in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Makutsi.  Mma Makutsi, proud graduate of the Botswana Secretarial Collage (with a 97 percent average, as she’s more than delighted to tell every single person she meets) has a weakness for beautiful shoes, something of a problem when you walk to work (itself housed in the back of an auto repair shop) on hard pan dirt roads.  But Mma Makutsi falls hard for a wildly impractical pair of too-small sky blue shoes with lipstick red linings.  Buy them, she must!  So she does, and they’re too small, and she hobbles about for a bit looking like her feet have grown two blue satin-covered sausages, and Mma Ramotswe gently tells her she’s being a fool, which by that point, owing to a weird back-up of blood rising from her feet, she heartily agrees with, and we all go home happy, having learned a positive lesson of some sort, though I’ve no idea what that lesson might be.  It was pretty silly and SO not my usual, but I tried to read it with an open mind, for my mom.

Pretty much the only thing Mmas Ramotswe and Makutsi can agree on is that donuts are yummy; much to Precious Ramotswe’s traditionally built consternation, they are as much a presence in the detective agency as the dim bulb apprentices who drift by from her husband’s auto repair shop out front.  So for the Mmas, a wee donut on my thumb.  And for my mama, my very best shot at this book.

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Literary Inspiration: Too Big to Fail

Too Big Collage

So this manicure isn’t exactly subtle, but then again, neither was the wholesale grifting and complete abdication of fiduciary duty by the wankers of Wall Street and the ghouls of government that led to the 2008 collapse of the American financial system, the narrative retelling of which, Too Big to Fail by Aaron Ross Sorkin, is the inspiration for these nails.

Some months on, I’ve no idea why I chose this book to satisfy the theme of historical fiction in my friends’ reading challenge.  A decade removed from the events that shook the financial industry to its core (without un-mooring it, heavens no, because see above re: the title) it can now fairly be classified as a historical work, and the structure of the book (a fleshed-out retelling of the ultimately fruitless attempts by the best and, um, brightest of the industry to circumvent a financial atom bomb, culled from thousands of hours of journalistic work and reassembled into a spritely narrative) satisfies the fictional aspect, although the entire thing is still appallingly, maddeningly rooted in real life baddies doing bad things and being richly rewarded for it.  It was an incredibly frustrating read.

But also a GREAT read.  Presented as a sort of in-the-moment recounting of the events that immediately preceded the $700 billion bailout of the financial system by the American taxpayers, Sorkin introduces the key players and the massive web of conflicts of interest that should have disqualified every single one of them from participating in the PATRIOTIC RESCUE OF THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM, let alone give them a seat at the table where they were allowed to drive actual legislation and policy.  It was, after all, their greed, their wanton disregard for the rules and their disdainful, near-criminal immorality that led in large part – the largest part – to the collapse and subsequent bailout of the system.

After gathering the cast of fools (the description of these men – they’re nearly all men, 35 to 65 years of age – reads like WASP Mad Libs: Raised in (Vermont/New York City/Washington/Connecticut), educated at (Harvard/Yale), handed a cushy internship straight out of college by (grandfather/father/uncle/other male mentor), CEO within five years (of some big banking concern, doesn’t really matter which one, lining those three letters up behind the Esquires in their name is really all they care about), divorce within 10, lather, rinse, repeat with a new company, a new wife) Sorkin attempts to lay out the labyrinthine, grossly leveraged financial system as it existed in the mid-aughts.

It’s here that Sorkin really shows his work, breaking free from the buzzwords, jargon and purposefully obfuscating technical terms to expose a deeply flawed, virtually incomprehensible system that even the major players were loathe to understand.  Sorkin doesn’t concern himself too much with apportioning blame for the state of the industry pre-bailout; nobody knew what they were talking about, everyone quite willingly kept themselves in the dark, and no one was willing to comprehend of a future in which they weren’t making billions of golden parachute’d dollars hand over fist.  By the end of the book I had a slightly better understanding of the situation, but I’m still utterly clueless as to how things got to a state where the only reasonable course correction was to funnel a trillion dollars of taxpayer funds into the financial system to save those businesses (just a handful of ultra powerful banks, lenders and brokerage houses) deemed worthy.

The bulk of the book deals with the final frantic week leading up to the bailout in which the mettle of these titans of financial industry is put to the test when the feds summon them all to non-optional emergency meetings to save themselves SAVE THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM.  That this doesn’t go the way the government had hoped is hardly surprising – with virtually no oversight to the process (an actual directive from the secretary treasurer, himself a former executive of Goldman Sachs, was to gather all of the major players in one room and simply tell them to “just fix it”) the financial types just broke off into little groups to advocate for their own best interests, civic duties be damned.  Also because they had no effin’ clue what they were doing.

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Sorkin does a rather incredible job at not explicitly highlighting the many and varied shortcomings of the people involved in this process.  He actually doesn’t need to – the craven ghouls haunting this tale are quite visible, and Sorkin exposes them for what they are, no hyperbole necessary.  I did chuckle a few times at his flattering descriptions of these men – “a hale and hearty 65; boyish good looks that belied his 50 years; a penis the length and width of a fire log” (joking about that last one.)  It’s actually a very smart journalistic gambit – you’re a better bee for using honey rather than the stinger, and it can’t hurt to sweeten up your sources a bit, especially when they’re as fragile as these ones.

Which was my real, genuine aggravation with this entire situation – that “fixing” the entire global economy had been handed to a lot of weak, ludicrously privileged, upwardly failing asshats I wouldn’t trust to deposit my paycheque.  These were (and are – mergers may have changed the legal names of these businesses, but the players are the same) dim, shallow, crassly selfish people whose only real talent was smoke and mirrors.  I took a lot of schadenfreude-laced joy in the many passages of self-important CEOs being denied audience with other self-important CEOs, phone calls between self-impressed jerkoffs apparently being the REAL currency that powered the American financial system in the late 2000s.

So a frustrating read, no doubt, but frustration born entirely out of the situation Sorkin is writing about, as opposed to the writing itself.  Too Big to Fail is a wonderful book, ambitious in scope, but still limited to a recitation of the facts, and just the horrible facts.  It should be mandatory reading for anyone still curious about the events surrounding the bailout.  That goes double for the actual subject matters themselves; if ever there was a lot that needed educating. 😦

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Literary Inspiration: The Night Circus

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Have you ever fallen in love with a book?  Just found yourself utterly entranced by the world it creates?  I think this happens all the time, can actually remember my father some 20 years ago telling me, in rapturous tones reminiscent of a little girl divulging her first crush, about this book series he had just started reading about a boy wizard at a magical boarding school.  My mom is going through something similar at the moment with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe books; when she talks about them, I can see that she’s been positively enchanted.  As was I the first time I read my favourite book, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.  I remember reading that blisteringly tragic final paragraph and then just sitting back in my chair, a melancholy smile playing at the edges of my lips, as I contemplated that weird ache in my chest that felt as though it was caught somewhere between heartbreak and hope.

Which is precisely how I felt when I finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, an elegantly languid tale of love, loss and the beauty of the unexplained as set against a mysterious after-hours circus.  This was the most beautiful book I think I’ve ever read, and it actually hurt a bit when the gorgeous tale of les Cirques du Reves and its creators, performers and devoted Reveurs drew to a close.  At the risk of sounding like a book jacket blurb, I would absolutely run away to join this circus.

On the subject of the story itself, a tale of two magicians whose chess game-like maneuvers play out over decades, sweeping the circus and its inhabitants into their increasingly dangerous orbit, I’m somewhat neutral.  It’s a love story, and a deeply satisfying one at that, but for me, this novel is all about the elegant, gothic carnival Morgenstern creates with her Night Circus.  This is an all black and white world, stark light-and-dark simplicity against which to highlight the incredible magical feats showcased within.  The only colours you’ll find in les Cirques du Reves are the blood red accessories the circus’s travelling fandom wear as a kind of identification, and on opening night, the rainbow-tipped flames in the hulking courtyard cauldron.

If a book could be said to be set designed, then this one has been, to within an inch of its life, and I adore it – I love the more is more is more approach!  It’s truly the most evocative novel I think I’ve ever read – I could picture every painted checkerboard floor, every striped canvas tent, every sumptuous midnight dinner menu, every impossibly beautiful feat of the unexplained.  And all the credit in the world to Morgenstern for this; she certainly has that Rowlingian flair for world-building.  That The Night Circus is her debut novel (the theme in my friends’ reading challenge for which I chose this book in the first place) is incredible; she’s a very gifted writer.  And not for nothing, because I’m exactly the kind of person who notices these kinds of things, but this was a beautifully edited book.  I can’t tell you how irked I get when I’m pulled out of a great story by some sloppy little editing error.  I get so peevish about it, I’ll actually grab a highlighter and aggressively circle it!  It’s a real delight to see someone (or someones) take the time and care to get it right the first time.

Because I’ve tasked myself with doing a manicure for each book I read for my friends’ reading challenge, I had to come up with one for The Night Circus.  But I couldn’t possibly have limited myself to just one design, not with so much great inspiration right there on the page…so I did five.  Actually six, but the sixth was whonkus and not quite what I had intended, so five it is!  Here I’ve done manicures inspired by Herr Thiessen’s dreamy courtyard clock, the entrance tunnel of stars, the spiral and checkerboard patterns painted on the ground and – my favourite – Celia’s wishing tree.

The Clock

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The Entrance

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The Grounds

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The Wishing Tree

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And then for good measure, because one does want a hint of colour, even in the midst of a black-and-white circus, I created a design inspired by the wrought iron cauldron in the centre of the courtyard.  The cauldron, a centrepiece of the circus in more ways than one, typically burns with stark white flames, but on the circus’s opening night, archers lit the flames with arrows tipped in a rainbow’s worth of rich colours.

The Cauldron

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Gosh, I loved this book; it was so pretty.  Big recommendation if you like a sweeping, slow burn of a love story and uncommonly evocative settings.  This one may require another read-through, and soon. 🙂

Literary Inspiration: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

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Stephen King has mortality on his mind in this 2015 book of short stories, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that I read in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the theme of (no duh) short stories.  And now so do I; his creepy bleakness has a way of catching.  But I suppose I wouldn’t read King, and I certainly wouldn’t consider him my favourite author, were I opposed to being pulled into his twisted world of ordinary horrors run amok.

In this collection of short stories, some written in and around 2015 and others dating back much earlier than that, King’s preoccupied with those everyday horrors, particularly the fundamental unknowability of death.  You can tell from the bent of the stories gathered in this collection – chronic pain in The Little Green God of Agony, suicide in Herman Wouk is Still Alive and the reaper himself in Mr. Yummy, among many others – that the fallout from his 1999 car accident still weighs heavily on his mind.  References to chronic pain, illness and violent car crashes abound.

King also seems preoccupied with what I’d call everyday domestic horrors – your spouse abruptly dying while out running a mundane errand, your happy romantic partnership suffering irreparable harm, the loss of a beloved pet to accidental neglect.  Now in his early 70s, King seems more in touch with the real things that go bump in the night than ever before.

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Ah, but this is still the same man who writes about rains of frogs and killer time-munching fuzzballs and psychotic action figures come to life (well, that one’s Richard Bachman) and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is no exception to King’s screw-with-your-head approach to storytelling.  Bazaar actually kicks off with a particularly gory little monster car tale (Mile 81), before veering into something very reminiscent of Heart of Darkness (The Bone Church) and concludes with an old fashioned, super bleak end-of-times tale (Summer Thunder.)

For these nails, I drew inspiration from four of Bazaar’s stories.  I thought they’d all make decent nail art, even if they weren’t necessarily my favourites (that honour goes to Ur, an Amazon-produced tale about a Kindle e-reader from another dimension.)  Here we have, from index finger to pinkie, my one-finger versions of Dune, a story about a supernaturally prescient beach (here I have it just beginning to spell out King’s own name), Blockade Billy, a slow burn tale of murder on-the-mound, The Little Green God of Agony, the story of a man seeking to physically exorcise his chronic pain, and Premium Harmony, a quietly devastating story about an unhappy married couple arguing their lives away.  Classic King.

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Literary Inspiration: I’ll Have What She’s Having

I'll Have Collage

Cute manicure inspiration aside, I don’t have a lot to say about this book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: Adventures in Celebrity Dieting by Rebecca Harrington.  I chose this book to satisfy the to-be-read requirement in my friends’ reading challenge, predominantly because it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for the past two years, longing for precisely that, but also because I was in desperate need of a light, literary palate cleanser after The Handmaid’s Tale.

Following the sort of “I’ll do crazy crap for a year and then write about it” literary craze that started with Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia, I’ll Have What She’s Having tosses writer Rebecca Harrington into the deep end of the celebrity dieting world as she attempts to emulate the weirdly restrictive eating habits of, among others, Madonna (macrobiotics), Karl Lagerfeld (Diet Coke), Marilyn Monroe (raw eggs in milk!) and Greta Garbo (pure, ear-splitting dietary insanity, with a heavy emphasis on a make-ahead (and apparently never-eat) celery loaf.)

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That all seems like fertile ground on which to mine a lot of excellent observational comedy, if I may mix my metaphors.  Yet I’ll Have What She’s Having was stubbornly flat, more a recitation of the unpleasant facets of these diets (the social isolation, the prohibitive costs, the biological disruptions) than any sort of insight, humourous or otherwise, into those same issues.  I was looking for something light, but this was just slight.  Clocking in at 161 pages of very large text and an inexplicable number of double-spaced paragraph breaks, it felt like a feature length magazine article that was needlessly stretched into a full length book.

The inside cover art did provide some pretty great nail art inspiration, however.  Can’t ever go wrong with bold graphics of food against a star-printed background.  That’s, like, right where I live!

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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.

Handmaid's 1

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.

Handmaid's 2