Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Blue Ribbon International Book Club of Friends

We're more or less at the one year anniversary of the book club my friend Valerie and I founded. Happy Birthday to the Blue Ribbon International Book Club of Friends! BRIBCoF has been a mainstay of the past year for me and added a lot of comfort as I adjusted to living in a new country. Once a month (sometimes less, sometimes more) BRIBCoF meets to discuss various novels that we've chosen to read concurrently. We also do a lot of fooling around and catching up, given that we're all friends from grad school.

I told Valerie I'd write about my favorite book of the past year - she's doing the same over on her blog. So what was my favorite book of the year? Telegraph Avenue? A Farewell to Arms? Wolf Hall?

The book I enjoyed the most this year was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Often celebrated for its exploration of gender in the dystopia/science fiction genre, The Handmaid's Tale first appeared to be very... boring. Feminist dystopia isn't always the way you'd want to describe some light after-dinner reading. However, as I delved deeper into the world of the main character (known only as Offred) I became fascinated.

The world of The Handmaid's Tale is a future America in which religious fundamentalists took over the US government after a deadly terrorist attack killed most of the Congress. The fundamentalists, who believe that women should occupy more traditional roles in society, slowly take away the rights of all female citizens until daily life in the country appears as some weird combination of life in Saudi Arabia, Nazi Germany and an isolated compound of a break-away fundamentalist Mormon sect.

How this world came to be is fascinating. How this society functions is fascinating. And there is no end to the thought-provoking topics that grew out of the book's themes. Among the most interesting to me:

1. The idea that society can regress. In the modern world, we like to see human history as a gradual progression of more enlightened thought, better technology, and fairer forms of societal organization. We are on a path in which we're leaving slavery, forced marriage and despotism behind. Now that we've invented the internet, we can't un-invent it. Only more people will learn to read and get good educations, not fewerWe like to think all of this, but it's not true. The Handmaid's Tale describes a society that has rejected many of the concepts we consider "modern" and historical examples of breaks in our perceived developmental path are bountiful. Consider life in post-revolutionary Iran for the county's westernized intelligensia. Imagine a time in which illiterate medieval peasants would raid old Roman temples and libraries for stone to construct their miserable hovels, with no concept of the beauty being destroyed. The idea that the "progress" our society has made could be erased so easily and so thoroughly is as terrifying as it is fascinating.

2. How the oppressed can assist in their own oppression. In the novel's male-dominated society, men don't constantly have to actively oppress women to keep them down. Institutions are created in which women oppress each other and in which they are indoctrinated that the society they live in was created to protect them. Anyone who rejects this notion is dangerous and often turned in by their own peers. Real-world equivalents are to numerous to tackle.

3. Controlled outlets for people who don't fit into society serve to keep it more stable. Women who just can't find it in themselves to live as oppressed slave-nuns in The Handmaid's Tale sometimes make it to the government-run secret brothels in which women are allowed a degree of sexual and personal freedom within the system. However, even here the "rebels" serve a purpose to the society, and by keeping them separated from the society at large, their anti-establishment ideas don't infect the majority of women. It makes you think twice about whether the 1960s free love, drug-focused counter-culture was a revolution, or served as an outlet that prevented a real revolution from happening. Whoa.

Anyway, this is a brief peek into the type of things we talk about (in addition to wearing mustaches and gossiping) in BRIBCoF.