Words: Handmaid

There is some extremist judge being considered for the U.S. Supreme Court (again), and she’s in a spin-off religious sect that once bestowed the title of handmaid upon her. (AP)

This evoked the famous Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (en.wikipedia.org), and so there were some awkward news flurries about how HER faith group was NOT the inspiration for THAT story.

There was even a grumpy denial from the U.S. Senate Majority “Leader” (guardian.co.uk) in which he said, among other things, that the term was being used pejoratively, “because one liberal author put it in the title of an anti-religious novel in the 1980s…”

I’m in a religion, and I did not think the Handmaid’s Tale was anti-religious in any way… because I don’t naturally associate the oppression of women, including treating women as property, forcing women to conceive children with men not of their choosing, or restricting other basic human rights with religious values. You’d have to be part of a religion with a similarly oppressive belief system to see that horrifically dystopian novel as an insult to your— oh. OH.

Book: The Power by Naomi Alderman

Cover of The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power
by Naomi Alderman
published by Back Bay Books (Little, Brown and Company)
2016

What would happen to the structure of society if women had the physical power to defend themselves, or even routinely overpower men?

In this engrossing novel, women develop the ability to generate electricity. Humans already have a lot of electrical wiring internally, but in the book, a scientific intervention intended for one purpose may have inadvertently given rise to the ability for women to generate and control electricity, an have the ability to taze at will from puberty onward.

This changes the world.

The story follows several women, both privileged and disadvantaged, comfortable and abused, in the spotlight and sidelined, who find different ways of utilizing this development to influence the direction their societies evolve in. The story of an intrepid male reporter from Lagos also provides a sympathetic (and at times, alarmed) point of view.

Alderman does a remarkable job of showing the RANGE of impacts that could arise, from fiercely patriarchal societies harming or killing women to maintain control, to government leaders militarizing this new ability; from women who use moderation in utilizing their new powers in societies that have included them, to women who wreak vengeance upon their captors and oppressors in societies were they functionally enslaved.

The way the book ends… just be sure to read what looks like an appendix, but is a key part of the story.

Yes, I’m sure Margaret Atwood is DELIGHTED that she got to make such a concise review-and-play-on-words about this book ON THE FRONT COVER.

As someone who has daydreamed of subtly engineering women to be stronger to decrease abuses, do I think that power struggles could play out as they do in this book? Yes, and perhaps Alderman is more realistic than I am, considering history. When have the powerful ever shared power willingly and peacefully? When have enslaved people ever received justice? When have oppressors ever willingly made amends? My own dark futures in fiction are dark DIFFERENTLY, but yes, I think we agree on the backlash. Because: humans.

Also note: read the acknowledgements. No, really.

Summary: a page-turner of a book with a thoughtful story arc for the characters, thoughtful (and very dramatic) implications across the wide range of conditions, and a dark view which is entirely fair, considering the state of the world. I’m glad I read it.

Book: The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

Cover of The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World
by Melinda Gates
published by Flatiron Books, NY
2019

I didn’t anticipate buying this book – I don’t generally think that billionaires do enough for the world, and I’ve read of the Gates’ many grants that appeared to push privatising the public school system – as if the ownership model of the schools, rather than the poverty of the students, the lack of pay for teachers, and the unfair, property-tax-based disparities that create a lack of funding for materials and facilities were not the issues to address in struggling districts! That said, I recalled that it was Melinda who took the initiative to engage in philanthropy, and who should take the credit for turning the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a philanthropic force. Plus, empowering women IS a great idea! So I stood inside a real bookshop (likely Bookshop West Portal), and opened this book to a random page. I was immediately engrossed, and bought it.

This is a good book.

Melinda Gates writes very modestly about – yes, this is going to shock you – listening to people in difficult situations, and financially supporting the people’s own plans to solve their problems. No, really! This isn’t a, “we are rich, and we float down from the heavens and know best what people need” story AT ALL. Instead, this book involves lots of traveling, listening, supporting ideas that Melinda isn’t entirely sure make sense, trusting people, and then being amazed by the results. (A recurring joke in the book in the form of her asking her husband, “Did you know that we are funding a [community initiative that wasn’t in the grant proposal, but which is a successful intervention]?” in which the answer is no, but the results are great, provides upbeat laughs.)

It also took guts to stand up to the leadership of the Catholic Church, a faith which Mrs. Gates is a member of, to actively support (and fund, and speak on behalf of) family planning. Having the church call her out by name for helping women must have been a shock (WHO DOES THAT?!?), but she stood her ground, and speaks up strongly and with evidence for what a positive difference family planning makes for everyone.

This book is informative, interesting, really well written, and ultimately emotionally moving. People helping women succeed in a way that benefits society is a fantastic subject!

Billionaires aren’t off the hook with me, but this particular one comes across as a really great person who has the right idea and has put her beliefs into action in a very positive, effective way.