The Handmaid’s Tale

1984 Meets Trump’s America

The release of the TV adaptation of Margret Atwood’s ’80s classic The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year not only gave creator Bruce Miller a wave of critical acclaim but also instigated a revival of interest in Atwood’s book. More than anything, her dystopian America about an extremely conservative republic that treats women as state-controlled breeders is being seen to have fresh parallels with Trump’s America.

The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred who under an oppressive regime that has taken over the fictional America has been forced to give up her old life and become a Handmaid, a sexual servant to a Commander who acts as the vessel to bear and carry his children in place of his aged wife. Undergoing dehumanising medical tests, ritualistic sex and a stripping of all personal identity, Offred and the other Handmaids become invisible beings, sacred property to be used and managed by the men who own them.

Coming at this as a The Handmaid’s Tale virgin (although I have read some of Atwood’s books before) it was easy to see why parallels are being drawn between Atwood’s dystopian projection of an America reacting to a declining fertility rate and the state of America at present. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a millennial surrounded by growing rates of fertility treatments and delayed parenthood with its accompanying greater risk of miscarriages and pregnancy complications, it’s not difficult to imagine Atwood’s Gilead becoming reality. The regime under which Offred and the other Handmaids have become objectified breeding machines came about from conservative religious views seeming to have the answer to societal issues such as a declining fertility rate – does that sound so unlike our world today? With Trump and his posse of white men who since the beginning of his presidency have seemed to be on a one-track path to undoing 50 years of female emancipation, Atwood’s Gilead no longer seems that unrealistic, and makes her book that much more significant today.

Aside from the clear parallels that can be made, overall I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood has a knack for keeping the reader interested by revealing parts of the story in bits. You are drip fed snippets of the wider picture, so like an addict you clutch to every drop you can get until the whole story is revealed to you and you’re on the last page. Well, almost the whole story. Like many of Atwood’s works, The Handmaid’s Tale does not end with a complete resolution. There is always some snippet left out, a question left unanswered, or another one brought up at the conclusion of another. Framed as a historical document transcribed by university lecturers, you close The Handmaid’s Tale questioning the text you’ve just read. How much has been changed in that interpretative process at the hands of academics is unknown and left unrevealed. Like Atwood’s The Penelopiad, you are left unsure whether what you have just read is the real story, or only part of it, questioning how reliable our narrator’s perspective is, or if her voice has been distorted.

You close The Handmaid’s Tale questioning, and that was possibly the source of Atwood’s power as a writer, her ability to leave you pondering long after the last page is turned. Despite the newly emerging image of Atwood’s Gilead as 1984 meets Trump’s America, the draw of Atwood’s literature has remained the same, but is simply being found or refound by an audience who are questioning the recent developments of the world around them.

The Silk Roads – an ambitious, fascinating but overwhelming history of Asia 

The history of the West’s rise to prominence has traditionally been told as a linear one. From the cultured Ancient Greeks to the all-powerful Roman Empire, Renaissance Europe to modern democracy – the West, history has told us, is the centre of the world. But Peter Frankopan disagrees.

In his book The Silk Roads, Frankopan, an Oxford historian with a childhood obsession with maps, makes his case that the world’s “central nervous system” originates from and expands out of the East. His aim is to turn generations of Western history lessons on its head. The West is not historically the centre of the world, or the Mediterranean for that matter, despite its meaning. It is the East rather, that has been the world’s go-to for cutting-edge ideas, revolutionary advancements and exquisite goods as well as a site of international dispute and rivalry for hundreds of years.

Yet, despite its bold undertaking and rather exaggerate description, Silk is not, the ‘new’ history of the world it claims to be. For one, the idea of Asia as a web of interconnecting exchange routes for goods, ideas, religions and philosophies to be traded and spread, is not a ‘new’ concept at all. The book is not a history of the whole world either; instead, what we actually are given is a rather fascinating, developed exploration of the history of Asia and its engagement with the rest of the world, or the world with it, missing out thousands of years of history that precedes the Persian Empire.

Excluding ambitious descriptions, the work itself is extremely impressive. From his preface, Frankopan alludes to how history is like a narrative that has long been twisted, manipulated and constructed over time to the West’s advantage, painting its success as natural and unchallenged. We are straight away probed to question the version of history that they’ve been taught. Refreshingly, Frankopan challenges years of school history, finally giving us a section of history from an Asian-centric perspective.

What Frankopan does extremely well is supporting his work with a wealth of evidence, quoting a vast range of texts as well as geological and economic support that makes his work truly fascinating. The chapter on the terrifying tide of hell-raising Mongols, especially in relation to the spread of the Black Death, was one of the more charming and interesting chapters of the entire 646 pages. The later chapters on the part played by the US government in central Asia and specifically with Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s also deserves high praise, especially Frankopan’s inclusion of recently released information from US government documents. The most captivating part is the wonderful side-stories of social history Frankopan infuses within the book; throughout the fabric of the work are wonderful threads of factoids that brings the whole book some colour amongst all the historical info.  

However, there are points when the need for brevity overrides your fascination, with each chapter being crammed to the brim with historical events, names and dates that it can give you a headache. Despite its intriguing content, Silk is often too fact-heavy for comfortable bedtime reading, unless you have google on hand.

Although often overwhelming in its content, for the range of continents and centuries that Frankopan attends to, in the majority of places drawing from the latest research, Silk is surprisingly detailed. Yet, there are some cracks in the paintwork, with patches of text in need of rewording and others in need of any words at all. Frankopan’s occasional use of repeated metaphors and phrasing dumbs down his work as it appears as if he’s running out of words. While many areas of Asia’s history are given pages of dedication, there are certain areas of the story that are completely skimmed over. Frankopan enthusiastically discusses Muhammad’s peace pact with the Jews of Medina in relation to the initial success of Islam and its civility with other faiths but choses not to mention how the same Jews were later executed. 

From the 1490s onwards on Frankopan’s timescale there is also a clear and rather disappointing shift in focus away from the East to the West. A considerable amount of the remainder of the book is dedicated to the international and imperialist gains of Western powers from the discovery of the Americas onwards, with Asia really only taking centre stage again in the final few chapters.

The final chapter, ‘The New Silk Road’ was also somewhat disappointing in its length and lack of development. Frankopan left loose ends at every turn by using the chapter as a conclusion to the book instead of a place to adequately discuss how the reins of international power are beginning to change hands back from West to East. Statements like how the Shanghai Co-Operation could become a “viable alternative to the European Union” for Asia were left without any real explanation. This “time of transition”* that the Ministry of Defence diagnoses us as currently experiencing was used as a way to conclude the chapter instead of as a starting point for discussion on whether Asia is truly ready to reclaim its title as the world’s centre for international politics and power. 

Yet, despite the underdone treatment of how Asia stands on the world stage today, The Silk Roads is a fascinating and entertaining read. Although at times I had to read a page three times over to take all of it in, Frankopan’s methodical guide through the centuries of captivating history is definitely a great place to start for anyone interested in Asia and its past. This ambitious and impressive book tackles the challenge of giving us a thorough history of Asia, a place where trade networks of goods, ideas, religions and revolution have  connected empires and continents together for millennia, and it very nearly succeeds. From its first page, this is a book that boldly takes on a difficult but necessary task of reexamining history, reminding us that the past is never clear-cut, and that both human advancement and failures can be found in both the East and the West. The underlying sentiment of how we are all connected, and how small events in one part of the world cause a change in another will humble even the most cynical reader. Just not quite the best choice for light bedtime reading.

 

*Ministry of Defence, Strategic Trends Programme: Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2040 (London, 2010) p. 10

 

 

 

 

SPQR – a concise, cut down to size history of ancient Rome

For hundreds of years, travellers have made their way to the Eternal City, being draw in to the heart of the Roman Empire to see for themselves where its history and legacy began. Our enduring love affair with Roman history has repeatedly led to it being mythologised in fiction, films, TV and drama, from Shakespeare’s history plays such as Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, to historical fiction authors like Robert Harris or Anthony Riches, to the numerous films that range from the cheesy to the downright inaccurate.

In her book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard takes our cultural fascination with Roman history and cuts it down to size. SPQR covers the history of ancient Rome from its blurry beginnings (both mythological and real) some time between 1300BCE – 600BCE to its development into a city-state and establishment as an empire that came to govern most of the known world.

But SPQR surprisingly does not start at the beginning. Instead, Beard rather unconventionally decides to begin her book with Cicero’s dispute with Catiline in 63 BCE. You are essentially starting your journey through ancient Rome 3/4 of the way through, then looking backwards, and then forwards up to 212CE. Although this seems at first counter intuitive, Beard’s unusual approach means that you are from the word go trying to find the links between Rome’s beginnings and the integrated cracks of the late Republic and early Empire as Beard herself slowly knits together a whole picture of the history of Rome.

What also makes Beard’s history stand out is that although she covers the standard, well-versed, ‘big’ parts of Roman history, she also goes into more mundane and individual elements such as the housing conditions of inner-city Rome, or paintings on the walls of Roman bars which showed stories of fights over a dice games. This switching between the micro and macro, the governmental and domestic makes SPQR a fascinating read as you can begin to piece together what the real ancient Rome looked like day-to-day, as opposed to it being mythologised by focussing purely on the actions of the elite and Rome’s international manoeuvres.

However, although Beard’s historical walkthrough of ancient Rome is easy to follow and intriguing it was not without its niggles. For one, it does take a while for you to actually get to the history part. Beard’s background as a university lecturer definitely seeps into her writing style, particularly in the introduction, as she poses lots of unneeded questions to the reader before actually getting going. Although this is a good way of getting the reader thinking, I did feel at times like I was reading the transcript of a lecture presented to history students as opposed to reading a book on Roman history catered for the general public. Despite these introductory questions, the tone of the majority of the book is altogether very readable and down to earth, almost like having a conversation with Beard over coffee as opposed to reading a history book. Her colloquial and witty style adds life, humour and eloquence to Rome’s history, making SPQR a much more enjoyable and easily understandable read for the novice historian.

The down side is that there were points where Beard’s down to earth and colloquial style did mean that she was not as specific in places as you would like. On reading SPQR, you’re often left wanting to know more – more details, more specifics, more gore, more scandal. Caesar’s assassination was one subject among many that could have been elaborated upon on Beard’s part as they felt a little skimmed over, with Beard relying on the reader’s assumed knowledge of the details. In this way, Beard’s framing of her subject is at times was a little vague even for the most novice reader of Roman history, and sometimes felt almost dumbed down in an attempt to make it more colloquial and understandable. However, the book as it stands is around 500 pages long, covering a thousand years of history. More detail would mean a bigger, more padded out book, which would arguably be too long to be enjoyable as it would no longer be the concise history of ancient Rome.

Although Beard could have elaborated at points, she can be praised for not falling victim to exaggeration in SPQR. Although vague in the specifics, Beard’s treatment of some of the myths and half-truths of Roman history helps to bring Rome into the readers’ understanding as an ancient city and not the site of fantasy. While she dismisses some myths as clearly impossible, or simply impossible to prove, Beard also does not pretend there is a single story or truth to the myths or that she and other historians known all the facts about the stories to come out of Rome. While Beard often acknowledges what is the most likely reality of a myth or legend, she does not make grandiose claims that this is the definitive truth, or even the whole truth, highlighting that some parts of Roman history are still very much uncertain and unknown. In this way, SPQR successfully brings the history of Rome to life without sacrificing realism and objectivity, presenting a concise although at times vague history of one of the most fascinating periods of history, unpacking its past, both mythological and real for all to read.

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Love Roman History? Check Out Yaya’s adventures in the Eternal City and Top Tips for Visiting Rome.

In Order To Live – a heartbreaking memoir of self-preservation and strength

At the age of thirteen, Yeonmi Park and her mother crossed the frozen river between North Korea and China in the dead of night to what they thought was freedom. What follows, is a harrowing tale of extreme suffering and self-preservation suffered by Park while still very much a child, having to forcibly grow up to deal with the dangers and impossible decisions she had to face.

From being the child mistress of a Chinese human trafficker to secretly burying her father in the dead of night on a nearby mountain, to walking through the Gobi desert where winter temperatures can reach extremes of −30 °C, following the stars and a broken compass to Mongolia, Park’s story is a heartbreaking tale of extremes. After rising to global fame from delivering her emotional speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Park has since become an active and well-known advocate for victims of human trafficking in China and human rights, as well as studying at a bachelors degree in Economics at the Columbia School of General Studies in NYC. At the age of 23, Park has achieved and gone through so much that it is hard to believe she had the bravery and determination to write In Order to Live, her memoir which details her traumatic experiences of abuse, social isolation and extreme suffering as well as her amazing triumphs.

Being a similar age to Park, I found reading her memoir heartbreaking and humbling, reading what she had experienced in such a short lifetime felt impossible to even grasp let alone understand, and me feel very young in comparison. In Order to Live is a memoir that not only raises issues about the suffering and oppression of the people of North Korea by the Kim dictators, but also about human rights issues further afield, such as the underground human trafficking network between North Korea and China by which unmarried Chinese men can buy North Korean wives for little money. The memoir also shines a light on the problems faced by foreigners entering a country from a complete different culture. Living in South Korea, Park had to learn to settle into a completely new country, a trying experience made even more difficult by the extraordinary lengths that she went through to get to South Korea being belittled by South Koreans seeing her as an “animal-thing”, “stupid and backward and untrustworthy”. It is a lesson that all of us must remember, especially at the moment with rise of nationalism over the last few years – you shouldn’t judge someone without knowing their story.

Aside from its political and social concerns, what I like most about Park’s memoir is how it is meditative and reflective. Although some elements seem romanticised, it is clear from the tone of her work that she has thought over her past experiences and trauma in detail, going over scenes that she had not, up to that point, processed emotionally. Not only does she relay her childhood, her journey to China, and eventually to South Korea and the experiences in between, but also stories from her mother and fellow defectors, so what you get is an overall sense of the system at large by which North Korean defectors have to go through extreme distress and hardship simply to live a life where there is enough food on the table each night. She also relays not just what happened, but how she was feeling and thinking at the time, admitting where her ethical understanding or view was in that moment, such as her understanding of religion, which is an interesting development to track through the memoirs, as in North Korea religion is banned. Park’s first experience with faith was through the Christian missionaries who helped secure her escape to South Korea, later developing her own sense of faith as her mind is allowed to think for itself and her world is opened up to new ideas.

Interestingly, Park also does not completely condemn the entirety of her North Korean upbringing. Although she sheds light on the cruelty of the Kim regime and the poverty and famine of the 1990s into which she was born, she does reflect on the aspects of her homeland that she misses, such as the quieter way of life in rural North Korea, where her neighbours helped her and her sister suffer the harsh winters while their mother was away. She reflects that it wasn’t until she left North Korea that she realised that ordinary people could be possible of causing human suffering, not just officials of the ruling power, becoming a victim of modern slavery by those she thought were helping to ensure her freedom.

Reading In Order to Live is a testimony to not only the extraordinary strength that arises from those who suffer extreme hardship, but also to the human side of every news story we hear each day. Recent reports of North Korea’s current nuclear activity have somewhat shrouded the individuals for whom the Kim regime is the oppressing force which governs their lives, and can lead them to risk their own lives to escape from it. While reading these stories of North Korea trying to square up to the major international powers, or China becoming the fastest growing economy, we should remember the dark systems at play of modern slavery and human suffering behind the news, those who suffer unimaginable trauma just to achieve a better life than that they are currently living. Yeonmi Park though her powerful memoir reminded me that there is always a human side to every story, there are always those who are risking everything they have to have a life like the ones we take for granted each day. There are always those who are fighting with all their strength simply in order to live.

 

Hygge – a pretty but impractical guide to everyday happiness

Ever since the Danish concept of hygge became popularised the last year, I have been intrigued by the various books pilled high in Waterstones on this interesting little word. Hygge is a Danish word that cannot be translated into English, but it can be understood as something like contentment or daily happiness. At first I thought it meant having some kind of epiphany every day of why you are so grateful for your life and everything in it. Although this would be lovely and very humbling, it sounded a little unrealistic, becoming one of those things that many people force themselves to perform in an attempt to reach something like inner peace, but in doing so defeats the nature of it entirely. Turns out hygge is much more simple than that.

In her book Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness, Marie Tourell Soderbergh describes hygge as the ‘small moments money cannot buy you, finding the magic in the ordinary’. I like this definition of hygge. After reading numerous articles on how to find hygge or how to create it in your life (the general advice seems to be to develop an addiction to lighting candles) Soderbergh’s definition seemed a bit more realistic.

The book itself is a bit of a stylish, Scandi deco scrapbook of different sources of hygge from different Danes. It has interviews with friends and family about what hygge means to them, snippets from Scandi interior designers on what hygge looks like in the home, as well as quotes from psychoanalysts and narrative therapists on what it means culturally and a few very hyggelig recipes wedged in the middle of the book for good measure.

Although I found that this very stylish looking scrapbook gave me a much greater understanding of what hygge means from the variety of sources,  I was a little disappointed when I opened the book as I wasn’t in a mood to read a sparse cook book. There is a limited quantity of text on each page neatly framed by an unneeded amount of white paper. One paragraph is all that takes up many of the pages, with other pages being taken up by pretty, unneeded pictures.  This made me wonder whether the book is overpriced for what you actually get content wise if you buy it for actually use not just because it is a pretty book.

What I did like was reading the quotes from the individuals about how they create hygge in their own lives. Soderbergh gives us brief examples of what hygge means to her: walking with her sister, spending time with her partner and the like.  This list, as well as the words from real everyday people about how they hygge in their own lives, gave me a much better idea of how to find hygge for myself. For a start, writing a small list of things that I enjoy and find comfort in on a daily basis goes a long way to finding out how to make sure each day has hygge in by including these activities daily. Your favourite holiday destination that you only go to every year or so wouldn’t make the cut. It is about the little things you take pleasure and comfort in. They might be private things, or time spent with others, or a combination of both. In this light, hygge seems a much more reachable and attractive daily goal than inner peace and eternal gratitude. I think the book needed to have much more from these individual voices; although the recipes and interior design pictures were charming, it was these sections from individual, normal people that made me reflect on my own life as to what it is each day that I enjoy.

Although I feel like I understand hygge better now after reading Soderbergh’s Hygge than after all the online articles I’ve read on the subject, the book felt very padded out by plank space and pretty,  unremarkable pictures. The fact I read it in one night made it feel a bit of a disappointing investment in terms of economics. But hygge to a degree is something we have in our lives already, it isn’t something to be created or bought. Searching for it in a book, regardless of how extensive its contents is, can almost be guarenteed to be a futile attempt, as hygge is something you can identify and make time for without spending a penny. It is too individual for a book to give you the answer. It is something you must work out yourself. Alternatively, immigrating to Denmark is also a suggestible alternative.

 

Swimming Home – a story that is both familiar and unknown

Straight away, Swimming Home presents us with a story that is both familiar and unknown. We are in Nice in 1994, where two families are sharing a villa for the summer. Joe Jacobs, the elusive, famous poet, his war-correspondent wife Isabel, and their teenage daughter Nina make up one family. The couple staying with them – the overly organised Mitchell and Laura – make up the other. All happy and cliché. That’s until they find a woman swimming naked in their pool. Invited to stay in the spare room by Isabel for unknown reasons, Kitty Finch, with her green fingernails and direct comments, quickly intrudes on their family holiday and begins to reveal the cracks below the surface of these middle-class families.

But a few pages in, and you’re already pretty confident you know what’s going to happen. The two marriages will be tested if not ruined, Nina will somehow get wrapped up in it all with her teenage hormones, and Mitchell’s gun under the bed will not stay put. Predictable. We’ve heard this kind of story before. Except we haven’t. It isn’t until right at the end with a final twist that we realise how wrong we were to think that Swimming Home is what you predicted it would be.

Yet what makes this book simultaneously frustrating and compelling, is not the revelation of our wide-off-the-mark assumptions but the uncomfortable feeling you get when you read it. You don’t know what makes you uncomfortable or where it comes from.

One of the consistent themes of Levy’s work is that not all is what it appears, that there is something lying under the surface that we are not being told. Isabel plays the part of a happy wife, mother and career woman while inwardly wrestling with her own identity.  Mitchell and Laura’s seemingly well-organised life is actually in tatters. Joe is more unstable than we think. Kitty is a mystery that is never fully worked out. Its originality lies in what Levy choses to disclose and what she reveals, of which character and when. The reader keeps trying to second-guess the characters and the plot but is deceived right up to the end, revealing our ill-made assumptions about what kind of story Swimming Home will be.

There is an interesting exploration within the book of the interweaving of sexuality and mental illness, although what the exact connection is difficult to discern. Kitty’s tendency to wander around naked makes her body the object of examination as well as of judgement about her vulnerability and mental condition. She appears as a mute, male fantasy but is doll-like, she seems vulnerable but is an agent of change. Nina is on the verge of sexual awakening, who is fascinated but intimidated by Kitty. Joe, on the other hand, uses flings with his various girlfriends to forget his thoughts and troubled past. When the long-awaited love scene between Kitty and Joe final occurs, Kitty is oddly distracted, noticing every possible sound outside the hotel room, detached from the sexual act. It is almost as if she is not present sexually, as if she is detached from her own sexual appeal and desire. This contrasts sharply with Joe, who, through sex with Kitty, comes closer than ever before to realising what he has been contemplating for years – suicide.

While sex seems freeing or at least is a mode for exploring mental illness, the home is a place that is unstable and unsure. Nina and Joe seem to have a close relationship in their happy home of two with Isabel always away. But we quickly learn all is not as rosy as it initially appears. In comparison, Isabel never feels at home, constantly detached from the worlds she inhabits. Mitchell and Laura’s facade of control and organisation is slowly destabilised as we find out Mitchell was squandered their money and they will have to close their shop. Kitty’s own homelife seems on the verge of being emotionally abusive.  “Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely,” Kitty says more than once, but in this novel, home is a space that is uncertain and insecure.

But the explorations of sex and home are just one level of Levy’s intriguing, multi-layered book. Beneath it is another layer concerning thought and self-awareness. Behind the novel’s concerns for female public nudity, for domestic control and stabilisation, the facades of happy families, and the importance of remembering the past, is the weight of realising what you have been mentally grappling with but have been unable to fully grasp. Levy slowly and subtly adds layers of thought to Swimming Home, but thought that is not fully formed, not fully expressed or concluded. It is this incompleteness, this elusiveness which is what makes the reader feel uncomfortable. That feeling of the characters not fully saying everything, of only revealing to themselves and us as readers part of the truth. We are constantly stabbing in the dark, thinking we know what is going on but wrestling with the feeling that everything is not what we think it is.

But maybe this is Levy is trying to show us something very difficult to convey – the slippery, evasive, and partly unknown nature of mental illness. How depression can subtly shake or crack the foundations of seemingly healthy, successful individuals.  How we make assumptions about people like Kitty Finch, when they are often wide-off-the-mark. How our own thoughts, our own identity, our own mental health can be difficult to fully grasp or understand or even express to ourselves let alone others.

Levy takes on the challenging topic of the weight of what is left unsaid and it definitely leaves you thinking. Swimming Home is an unnerving yet thought-provoking read that leaves you simultaneously satisfied and disturbed.

 

Go Set A Watchman – an unsatisfying but thought-provoking story

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscience”

In July 2015, the long-awaited companion to Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill A Mockingbird exploded onto bookshelves, only to be met with mixed reviews by faithful Mockingbird devotees. In Go Set A Watchman, we re-meet the beloved Jean-Louise Finch (now 26 years old) as she is returning home to her old territory of Maycomb County for a habitual visit, only to find that this time her stay is somewhat more emotionally testing than normal, as she is confronted with more than Aunt Alexandra’s prudish comments on her slacks and loafers.

Set in the strained background of increasing civil rights tensions in America, Scout’s trip home revels a society still struggling with a quickly changing status quo. Watchman explores the discrimination and prejudice between the races from where Mockingbird left off, give or take 20 years. Yet, despite this backdrop of social history, humorous flashbacks and romantic sub-plot, the weight of the book is centred around Scout’s crucial but agonising lesson on moral autonomy. Framed around what Uncle Jack describes as Scout’s ‘birthing pains’, the reader has to bear the traumatic process of Scout separating herself and her ethical conscious from that of her father, Atticus, who is revealed to be entirely different from the Atticus we know and love, to the horror of myself and fellow Mockingbird fans.

In the same courtroom where Attics became a moral hero 20 years earlier,  Scout sickeningly witnesses her father attend a meeting that is dangerously close to advocating segregation. Scout has a knee-jerk reaction to the sight, beginning her book-long battle against Atticus, as he is shown to be someone other than the moral idol she thought she grew up with. Along with Scout, the reader’s faith in Atticus is broken as before your eyes, the Atticus of Mockingbird is quickly broken down into a character who is unrecognisable. Despite describing himself as a “Jeffersonian Democrat” who only believes in civil rights for those who can bear the accompanying responsibilities, Atticus’ racial views rapidly take him beyond borderline racism as he shocking states that “white is white and black is black”. As Scout reacts to her world collapsing around her, she ends up fighting against herself, Atticus, Uncle Jack and the whole idea of Maycomb in a rather painful episode of soul-searching, desperately trying to understand this new world where her old role models are something she can no loner believe in.

Surprisingly, it is Uncle Jack, not Atticus who saves the day. After an emotional debate with her father while he calmly tries to explain his views on social emancipation, Dr Finch brings order back into the story with a bit of tough love for both his exhausted niece and the readers. Having your whole belief in others turned upside down is bearable Uncle Jack reasons to Scout, because after she has screamed at Atticus till she is blue in the face, she reduces him “to the status of a human being”. He rather insightfully points out that Scout’s (and our) mistake, is that for years she has confused Atticus with God, never seeing him as a ordinary person with human feelings and human failings. Once Scout metaphorically destroys Atticus, she is able to not only become a separate entity with an independent conscience, but also meet her father for the first time as a real person.

As a young woman whose moral views have been largely formed by the influence of my elder relatives, the message of needing to set your own moral bar apart from that of those you admire is a significant and important one. Everyone needs to go through that process of distinguishing where your parents’ opinions end and yours begin. Everyone needs to re-meet your old role models as real living people, and accept them for their humanness as well as their opinions which you might not agree with. This experience is emotionally tiring at best, but with Scout it is simply heart-breaking.

Yet despite the underpinning morale (which is a good one), the story itself is unsatisfying. After Scout’s realisation of her need to break down the affinity between her conscious and Atticus settles in, the book comes to a rather abrupt end. You are left feeling like the story is unfinished. Scout never sees Cal again after their one and only conversation in the whole book which ends rather upsettingly. The result of the legal case of Cal’s grandson that Atticus takes on is frustratingly left out. Her goodbye to Hank is not even given one page. We never find out if Scout finally gets over what happened to Jem. Overall, we are left with a lot of annoying loose ends.

But I think the mistake is not in Watchman, but in our expectations of it living up to the bar set by Mockingbird. Not only was Watchman written before Mockingbird, it was also never intended as a sequel, or a prequel, or for that matter published at all. Watchman should be seen as the first stab at a novel from which Lee extensively edited and redrafted to produce the canonical text that is To Kill A Mockingbird. It was a first attempt. Hence the frustrating, jarring narrative and deficient ending. Also, although both books are set in the same world, they tell very different moral lessons. To Kill A Mockingbird boldly challenged the moral arguments used to legitimise racial discrimination, and the prejudiced attitudes towards the black community in Southern America. Go Set A Watchman tackles a different, more personal moral question – that of our own moral independence. Scout is comically and rather correctly called by her uncle a “ordinary turnip-sized bigot”. Scout, like many of us, is guilty not of being racist, of being obstinately devoted to her own opinions, refusing to socialise and live amongst those who differ in opinions to herself. It is definitely a lesson that some still need to learn now; different opinions doesn’t mean people should be separated from others, or not associate with each other. It is a skill to interact with those you don’t fully agree with, but everyone must form their own opinions, and if not accept but allow other people to do the same – everyone must set their own moral watchman.

Despite these narrative and character differences, Scout remains essentially the same in Watchman as in Mockingbird as the standoffish tom-boy we know and love. She just undergoes a major personal evaluation and evolution. In this way, Watchman supplies more thought-material for self-reflection than Mockingbird. It illuminates a social history that was far from two sided, with those far and in between, who agree in part with one and in part with the other. But more importantly, it raises questions about where your opinions have come from, but also how they differ from those that have helped form them in the first place.

Not close to the canonical title of To Kill A Mockingbird, but when viewed independently, Go Set a Watchman provides plenty for the reader to mentally wrestle with and contemplate. An unsatisfying read but with a thought-provoking morale underneath all there is to disappoint – should be avoided for those who want to keep their childhood heroes intact.

The Silk Roads – an ambitious, fascinating but overwhelming history of Asia 

The history of the West’s rise to prominence has traditionally been told as a linear one. From the cultured Ancient Greeks to the all-powerful Roman Empire, Renaissance Europe to modern democracy – the West, history has told us, is the centre of the world. But Peter Frankopan disagrees.

In his book The Silk Roads, Frankopan, an Oxford historian with a childhood obsession with maps, makes his case that the world’s “central nervous system” originates from and expands out of the East. His aim is to turn generations of Western history lessons on its head. The West is not historically the centre of the world, or the Mediterranean for that matter, despite its meaning. It is the East rather, that has been the world’s go-to for cutting-edge ideas, revolutionary advancements and exquisite goods as well as a site of international dispute and rivalry for hundreds of years.

Yet, despite its bold undertaking and rather exaggerate description, Silk is not, the ‘new’ history of the world it claims to be. For one, the idea of Asia as a web of interconnecting exchange routes for goods, ideas, religions and philosophies to be traded and spread, is not a ‘new’ concept at all. The book is not a history of the whole world either; instead, what we actually are given is a rather fascinating, developed exploration of the history of Asia and its engagement with the rest of the world, or the world with it, missing out thousands of years of history that precedes the Persian Empire.

Excluding ambitious descriptions, the work itself is extremely impressive. From his preface, Frankopan alludes to how history is like a narrative that has long been twisted, manipulated and constructed over time to the West’s advantage, painting its success as natural and unchallenged. We are straight away probed to question the version of history that they’ve been taught. Refreshingly, Frankopan challenges years of school history, finally giving us a section of history from an Asian-centric perspective.

What Frankopan does extremely well is supporting his work with a wealth of evidence, quoting a vast range of texts as well as geological and economic support that makes his work truly fascinating. The chapter on the terrifying tide of hell-raising Mongols, especially in relation to the spread of the Black Death, was one of the more charming and interesting chapters of the entire 646 pages. The later chapters on the part played by the US government in central Asia and specifically with Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s also deserves high praise, especially Frankopan’s inclusion of recently released information from US government documents. The most captivating part is the wonderful side-stories of social history Frankopan infuses within the book; throughout the fabric of the work are wonderful threads of factoids that brings the whole book some colour amongst all the historical info.  

However, there are points when the need for brevity overrides your fascination, with each chapter being crammed to the brim with historical events, names and dates that it can give you a headache. Despite its intriguing content, Silk is often too fact-heavy for comfortable bedtime reading, unless you have google on hand.

Although often overwhelming in its content, for the range of continents and centuries that Frankopan attends to, in the majority of places drawing from the latest research, Silk is surprisingly detailed. Yet, there are some cracks in the paintwork, with patches of text in need of rewording and others in need of any words at all. Frankopan’s occasional use of repeated metaphors and phrasing dumbs down his work as it appears as if he’s running out of words. While many areas of Asia’s history are given pages of dedication, there are certain areas of the story that are completely skimmed over. Frankopan enthusiastically discusses Muhammad’s peace pact with the Jews of Medina in relation to the initial success of Islam and its civility with other faiths but choses not to mention how the same Jews were later executed. 

From the 1490s onwards on Frankopan’s timescale there is also a clear and rather disappointing shift in focus away from the East to the West. A considerable amount of the remainder of the book is dedicated to the international and imperialist gains of Western powers from the discovery of the Americas onwards, with Asia really only taking centre stage again in the final few chapters.

The final chapter, ‘The New Silk Road’ was also somewhat disappointing in its length and lack of development. Frankopan left loose ends at every turn by using the chapter as a conclusion to the book instead of a place to adequately discuss how the reins of international power are beginning to change hands back from West to East. Statements like how the Shanghai Co-Operation could become a “viable alternative to the European Union” for Asia were left without any real explanation. This “time of transition”* that the Ministry of Defence diagnoses us as currently experiencing was used as a way to conclude the chapter instead of as a starting point for discussion on whether Asia is truly ready to reclaim its title as the world’s centre for international politics and power. 

Yet, despite the underdone treatment of how Asia stands on the world stage today, The Silk Roads is a fascinating and entertaining read. Although at times I had to read a page three times over to take all of it in, Frankopan’s methodical guide through the centuries of captivating history is definitely a great place to start for anyone interested in Asia and its past. This ambitious and impressive book tackles the challenge of giving us a thorough history of Asia, a place where trade networks of goods, ideas, religions and revolution have  connected empires and continents together for millennia, and it very nearly succeeds. From its first page, this is a book that boldly takes on a difficult but necessary task of reexamining history, reminding us that the past is never clear-cut, and that both human advancement and failures can be found in both the East and the West. The underlying sentiment of how we are all connected, and how small events in one part of the world cause a change in another will humble even the most cynical reader. Just not quite the best choice for light bedtime reading.

 

*Ministry of Defence, Strategic Trends Programme: Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2040 (London, 2010) p. 10

 

 

 

 

Red – a spellbinding blend of scholarship and wit

I received Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jackey Colliss Harvey as a present last Christmas from my Granddad. Whether as a joke or as a serious present, or a mixture of both (all three are always possibilities where my Granddad is concerned), as the only redheaded grandchild on both sides of my very brunette and blond dominated family tree, the idea of learning about my history was immediately intriguing. I have to say I was not disappointed.

Colliss Harvey’s Red is a cleverly written, extensively well researched work, that details the history of red hair from its initial genetic emergence some 50,000 years ago up to the festival Redhead Days in Breda in the Netherlands today, covering an impressive range of biological, social and cultural history.

It is a book in which you learn a great deal about red hair, more than you thought you would. I acquired beyond the amount of historical and biological factoids I was expecting to learn from reading this book. Like how red hair did not originate in Scotland or Ireland as commonly believed, but began to emerge somewhere between our migration from Africa and settling in Central Asia’s grasslands. Or how there were ginger, freckled Neanderthals. Or that the pain thresholds between redheads and non-redheads differ – redheads need about 20% more anaesthetic to be knocked out than other patients. Who knew that?!

Not only does Colliss Harvey expand you historical and biological knowledge, but also exposes you to modern social projects that attempt to tackle stereotypes towards red hair, often by redheads themselves. Like Thomas Knights‘ RED HOT 100 project launched in 2014, that used photographs of very handsome redheaded men and shared their stories about growing up red to help confront sexual stereotypes of male redheadeds being unattractive.

Yet despite the extent of historical and cultural material that Colliss Harvey examines and exposes the reader to, it is her witty tone that pervades her work which really wins me over. A book that is overwhelming factual can often lead a reader to lose focus and become easily bored of the material in front of them. This is not the case with Red. Not only is the material that Colliss Harvey examines and the conclusions she draws interesting in their own right, it is her humour, her sarcasm and her colloquialism that really brings you in, that make this work so absorbing. A history of red hair not only written by a redhead, but by a redhead who knows how to engage with the reader on a human level and make them smile. Now there is author who is immediately engaging.

By the time I had finished the book, Colliss Harvey had instilled in me, or reminded me of my inner sense of pride about my being red. Red hair for hundred of years has been the hair colour of difference, of mystery, of threat. It is not uncommon for redheaded children to be bullied for their locks, or for their hair to be the one defining characteristic people notice about them, overshadowing all others. But despite these side-effects, I doubt whether many redheads would want to be any other colour. To be red is to be different, to be unusual, to stand out. Red is something to be proud of.

Overall it is an eye-opening and deeply fascinating lesson on the biology, history and social attitudes towards red hair, that tackles folktales, demythologises stereotypes, but most importantly, it is a celebration about being red, being different, being unique – a lesson more of us should learn and take on board.

Eloquently and amusingly expressed, this spellbinding blend of scholarship and wit is a must-read for the redhead and non-redhead alike.

When The Sky Fell – a readable blend of mythology and science

When The Sky Fell is a non-fiction book by Rand and Rose Flem-Ath, in which they expound their theory that Atlantis could have been situated on Antarctica, under the thick cover of ice.

Based around Charles H. Hapgood’s theory of earth crust displacement, they use a readable and highly intriguing blend of mythology and science to argue that in 9600 BC, Atlantis was destroyed by the earthquakes and floods caused the tectonic plates moving collectively as one unit. These global natural disasters not only plunged Antarctica under layers of thick ice, turning it into the ice-continent it is today, covering any remains of Atlantis, but also resulted in various myths being told around the world of a lost island paradise and the sky falling.

The Flem-Aths argue that the mythological similarities in these tales evidence that the destruction of Atlantis actually happened, and that the survivors made it to salvation in other parts of the world. They argue that the introduction of agriculture in two different parts of the world at approximately the same time (after 9600BC) – the land near Lake Titicaca in South America, and the Spirit Cave in the highlands of Thailand – was not an introduction at all, or a coincidence,  but a re-introduction by Atlantean survivors, a people that was highly civilised and advanced who had settled in these areas because they were  climatically stable, fearing another deluge. Raising the point that the first five known civilisations – Egypt, Crete, Sumeria, India and China – all were formed in areas that after the last earth crust displacement all shared a common climate stability, they argue that Atlantean survivors may have settled in these places of safety and formed the roots of civilisation.

What I find interesting about this book is the use of both mythology and science. The connection of the tales of the destruction of Atlantis and the various narratives of the loss of a great island civilisation, the earth being destroyed by a great flood and the survivors leading the world into a new age, all could tell of real life events.

I am not fully convinced by the Flem-Aths idea of Atlantis being buried like hidden treasure under sheets of ice, but their argument does make it seem possible if anything else. A lot of their ‘evidence’ is actually speculation – arguing that the true location of Atlantis could be hidden in secret old maps, or lost scrolls or kept as closely guarded secrets within ancient schools of knowledge. All these what-ifs render their argument only partly believable and almost entirely unproven due to the lack of concrete support.

Despite these flaws, it was an enjoyable, thought-provoking and compelling book that is easily readable for the non-scientists like myself. The mix of scientific thought and evidence with a range of cultural myths, although not forming solid evidence for their argument, is deeply interesting in terms of aligning the often divided discourses of knowledge: Science and mythology.

It is certainly a good starting-point for anyone fascinated by the tale of Atlantis.