The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” is the retelling of the infamous epic tale “The Odyssey”, told through a different lens. Not only was it a great read (I read it twice!), it gives the reader a lot the think about.

“The Odyssey” tells the story of Odysseus’s decade long journey home after fighting the Trojan War, where his eternally faithful, loving and ever patient wife, Penelope, awaits his return while taking care of his kingdom and fending off several suitors who would do more than kill for the chance to gain Odysseus’s riches. Upon Odysseus’s return, he slaughters the suitors, hangs Penelope’s 12 maids and reclaims his kingdom. And that’s the end of that!

Winston Churchill was quoted to have said: “History is written by the victors”. By now, we are quite aware that history has shown to give priority and power to the male figure (and in many cases, it still does). Considering the two statements, one can deduce that in history the male is the dominant victor. So, one can also assume that “The Odyssey” was written by the victor leaving out the other side of the story. Atwood tells us Penelope’s side of the story.

With Penelope as the narrator and her 12 slaughtered maids her ‘chorus’, Atwood gives voice to the faithful wife and her support group, who’s own journey in “The Odyssey” is far from considered. Her feminist approach to the age-old tale challenges the reader to contemplate other key characters in the tale. By doing so, Penelope and her entourage are humanized and the nature of their characters that is better known as being frail and passive is completely restructured to reflect strength and intelligence.

Penelope begins her narration from the fields of Asphodel in the underworld stretching into the 21st century where Odysseus is made to stand in front of a jury to answer to his crimes; actions which in his time were within his rights as a slave owner. However, the process is interjected by divine intervention and the reader is left to determine his/her own ‘truth’.

Atwood’s dry humour and feminist approach is tangible throughout the piece. Penelope’s frank comments bring wit to a tragic story moving it along in such a way that the reader follows the journey with ease. One can say that it’s a comedic tragedy with a very heavy undertone.

The telling of the maids’ life encounters are extremely melancholy. However, the way in which Atwood brings their recounts to life through song and child’s play creates certain contrasts between voice and tale where the reader is put in a place of unease. Singing a light-hearted rope-jumping rhyme about their murders, or being accompanied by a fiddle while singing about their unfair circumstances would make anyone question the unjustness of their realities (whether or not they want to). I think this is done for that very reason. The vast difference between the two allows the reader to think twice of the situation at hand. The eeriness of the concept of singing about rape makes it all the more potent.

It is clear that the idea of male supremacy is being questioned because of the nature of this book. However, I think that it can also be seen as a commentary about how hierarchy also plays a part in supremacy. Penelope uses her maids to help fend off the suitors by making them her eyes and ears among the enemy. To fulfill that role her maids are abused, raped and forced to spread rumors among the men that eventually lead to their being hung. So how is Penelope treating other women under her own care? Even though she sees her maids as her own children they are looked down upon. There is no mention of her attempting to stop the rapes. As stated, the maids are a source of information throughout the tale. To this Penelope comments that “telling tales is a low art” and that the maids are “the idol minds of gossip”. So, she loves them dearly, but in her eyes they are still below her.

Moving on to a general observation, I do see the tale as being a comment on all wars where the men leave the safety of their homes and it is up to the women to fend for themselves and keep everything running. Women are the silent heroes and survivors of any war.

A few quotes to ponder:

  • After describing the kinds of bad men to be found in the fields of asphodel Penelope says: “Like a lot of goody-goody girls, I was always secretly attracted to men of that kind.” – Are there good girls at all?
  • Commenting on the spreading of rumors with regards to a woman: “If she defends herself she sounds guilty.”
  • After running into Helen: “Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exist merely for their amusement?”
  • Referring to ‘artifacts’ in museums after calling them “trash”: “Some of it made its way to enormous palaces that have – strangely – no kings or queens in them.” – it’s all a matter of perspective.
  • “All of this was play-acting: “the fiction was that the bride had been stolen, and the consummation of a marriage was supposed to be a sanctioned rape.” – Talk about male dominance and female humiliation!

The Hunger Games – Who’s the bully now?

The Hunger GamesFor those of you who are not aware of the content of this book, I thought I would write a very brief summary before putting my thoughts out there. Before I go on though, I must say that I will go into a few details of the book that may give away some of the content. So, if you are the kind of reader who does not appreciate knowing a few details before reading them yourself (as I am)… be warned! If this applies to you, go read the book, then report back and share your thoughts.

So – In summary, “The Hunger Games” is the first of 3 books in a series. The story revolves around several characters with Katniss and Peeta as the protagonists. Basically, the book is set in the future at which point North America does not exist, due to an unsuccessful uprising/revolution. It is replaced by a nation called Panem, comprised of one Capitol overseeing 12 Districts. Each district serves the Capitol and specializes in one industry or another. The people of these districts are ruled under the Capitol’s dictatorship and have no means of contact between one other. The people of each district live in isolation of the realities of every other District around them. Panem has been divided and conquered.

The Hunger Games is a completely televised “show”/”competition” where one boy and one girl, aged 12 through 18, of each of the Districts are randomly chosen to participate. The “tributes” are made “celebrities” and are placed in a man-made arena that replicates any given natural habitat. Tributes are expected to survive and fight one another. The winner is the sole survivor. This takes place on a yearly basis as a reminder of the atrocities of the uprising to all the people of Panem, to stop any ideas of people uprising again.

“The Hunger Games” is one of those books that had my thinking process in constant flux. Not only was the story unfolding like a rollercoaster ride but so were the implications of each of the twists and turns throughout the story.

That aside though, the reoccurring message that is presented to the reader in so many different approaches on so many different levels is the idea of obsessive control and the incessant need to be at the very top of the hierarchy. Of course, I am referring to the Capitol.

The Games are a weapon of mass control used to keep the people sucked into the frame of mind of being forced into helpless submission. It’s a way of brainwashing the people into their way of life. They are not convinced that it is right but they are convinced that they are unable to do anything about it. Katniss refers to District 12 as a place “where you can starve to death in safety.” A bit of an oxymoron but one that is reality.

It gets more interesting. Katniss, with her hate of the system, and knowing the power of media, learns to manipulate the system through the media. She adds drama to her “performance” in the arena to win the hearts of her viewers. She is very aware of the power of media and sees how the people of the Capitol are taken by it. This other, even more powerful, weapon of mass control, has seriously desensitized the masses especially in the Capitol (as their children are not in danger of becoming tributes). The fact that children are turned into killing machines and are being murdered through those “games” is completely irrelevant, “everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.”

After winning the hearts of many by watching her every move in the arena to send the right messages to the outside world, Katniss goes ahead and has the “audacity” to insult the Capitol on two very pivotal occasions: 1) Showing all of Panem the love and care she had for Rue by draping her in flowers and singing to her after she had been killed knowing that the cameras were on her through the entire process; in turn insulting the games and what the Capitol stands for; and 2) Instigating the threat of a double suicide with Peeta during the very last moments of the games. She knew full well that the Capitol could not end the game with no winner. The one thing that was now in her control was her choice of living or dying. She took the chance of ending her life! She shocked the entire nation by playing the Capitol’s game by her own rules succeeding in bending the system. She mastered the weapon of mass control and controlled it herself.

I truly admire Katniss’s strength to standing up to such a power greater than her own. The only problem is that, to the outside, she stands alone. She managed to reverse the roles of bully and victim. So… who’s the bully and who is being bullied?

Alone, anyone is vulnerable, especially when fighting a battle. Her rebellion is extremely threatening. She needs to build an army of followers for her to be safer. The first step has been taken and there is no turning back.

This book ends with the reader being aware that Katniss’s efforts are supported by the few that know her. However, they are not ready to make this public. As far as the Capitol is concerned, she still stands alone. I wonder what the second book of the series will reveal.

For the time being though, my questions to you are: Do the Capitol’s ways ring any bells at all? Do you think our media is just as controlling of us? Are we aware of the control or not? Do we choose to ignore the implications and bend to the rules of the media?

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room was certainly a gripping read. It was one of those books that I could not put down. One that I wanted to read right through but at the same time did not want to finish. There were several issues that were addressed throughout the telling of this story. Although I can go on forever about the love, loyalty and bravery that Emma Donoghue portrays in both Ma and Jack throughout the book I’d prefer to focus on 3 other points that are constantly being addressed and/or challenged as the narrative unfolds. These are: the child’s perspective, the issue of stunted growth, and the questioning of reality.

1)   As the entire book is written in Jack’s voice (who is 5) it is very hard not to address the idea of seeing the story through Jack’s mind. As Jack tells us the way he turned 5 overnight and introduces us to Ma, “Room”, “Table”, “Chair” and “Bed” he continuously refers to objects with proper names as though each of these objects were indeed his friends. Jack does this because they simply are! Living in complete isolation with his mother as the only other person he’s ever interacted with it’s probably the most logical thing in the world to humanize the objects around him. It’s almost as though it is a survival strategy. But at the same time, he is completely unaware of the existence of a world outside “Room”. The idea that Emma Donoghue has given her readers a door inside a child’s mind and the simple logicality of Jack’s thoughts is what makes this story SO unique and SO intriguing! Only, these thoughts are interpreted by an adult and as much as we (as adults) would like to think that we know exactly what a child is thinking or feeling… we don’t. So, as incredibly logical the interpretation is of Jack’s thoughts in any of the situations he finds himself in who really knows what a child could be thinking?! We’ll never know. This is not to say I don’t think this book is incredibly written … it is! And it’s one that I’d read time and time again. But I just thought it would be interesting to think about who really does know the perspective of a child unless you are one of those people who remembers a ridiculous amount of detail from childhood (as I do… to the point where it’s a bit scary). With time, I’ve found that not too many people I know have the ability to remember what they were thinking at the age of 3 or 4 in a particular situation. Anyway… I just thought that the idea of a true child’s perspective was one to think about.

2)   When Jack and Ma do escape their captor, Jack goes through a series of tests to assess his growth and compare it to a regular 5-year-old boy who has not been living in a room all his life. As a teacher I found two particular findings quite interesting because of their larger implications.

The doctors assigned to Jack, as well as Ma, had noticed that he seems to have become quite clumsy while at the clinic. He continuously bumped into things giving himself multiple bruises. It turned out that his visual development was stunted in the sense that he is unable to judge distance accurately because he has been confined in such a small space; and so the need for him to judge distance was not apparent in his environment. Hence, it did not develop! There was another situation in the book where he encouters a stair-case for the first time and is very perplexed about how to tackle them. His knees have never flexed in the way that is needed to go down a stair-case! Left to his own problem solving skills he decided to sit on a step and work his way down from there. Simple, but logical. What does this mean coming from a teaching background? Take this into a classroom where a six year old in the first grade has not developed basic colouring skills or is unable to take hold of a pencil in the right way would probably have something to do with not being exposed to such objects in his/her familiar environment. So there was no need and/or no opportunity or even desire to learn such skills. So, they don’t! I’m sure I will encounter such children at many points of my career and I only hope that I will be able to provide them with an environment where they can explore different skills without fear and develop an understanding of them.

3) Jack’s questioning of reality is a constant theme that also plays a large role in making the book “un-put-down-able”. For the sake of shortening this post ever so slightly. I’ll ask: What is reality to you? How would you react if everything around you which you took for granted as being real was taken away from you? What then? Remember “The Truman Show”? Same predicament! But what if it was you?

The Little Prince – Priorities and Being Happy

I’ve read this book a few times. It’s one of those books that make more and more sense after every read. To a child it is full of absurd characters with bizarre ideas and obsessions. As an adult, I see myself reading between the lines and taking away many life lessons from the story of a wandering prince from a planet holding 3 volcanoes and a rose.

I really believe that we create our own experiences and tailor them to our own liking. Whether we are aware of it or not, we make life what it is and I think that Antoine de Saint Exupéry is conveying this message through his story.

The “quirky” characters in this story shed a lot of light about how we choose to live our lives. Be it the accountant counting the starts or the tippler drinking his way through his guilt of being a drunk, the way in which either of these characters choose to live their lives is of vital importance and meaning to them. The Little Prince is unable to see the logic behind the behaviour of any of the adults that he meets on his way to the planet Earth. These adults live in such a way that keeps their stress levels high and their whole existence revolves around one particular obsession. The way the Little Prince sees it, they are unable to appreciate what life has to offer them because they are so one sided in their judgment and have a stubborn refusal to change, that they miss out on so much and/or misjudge what is staring at them in the face. At the same time though, the Little Prince emphasizes so much on the importance of his rose that he himself cannot think of anything but his rose. His rose is his obsession, but the reasons behind his obsession are all selfless as opposed to the adults whose reasons are quite selfish. The Little Prince does see the beauty and simplicity of life while the adults around him are too wrapped up in their own selfish agendas.

Now, I could say that the Little Prince has got all his priorities wrong and that the obsession of his rose and its beauty is what is clouding his judgment on what life has to offer. It’s all a matter of perspective.

All the adults who the Little Prince met had obsessions but none of them were happy, the Little Prince was more than happy to tame his rose and make her his priority. So, he was content.

I quote again: “It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rose so important.”

If you were to think about what really mattered in your own life what would it be and why? Do you think you are “wasting” your life on the things you spend most of your time on? Is it your choice to stop and smell the roses or not? Either way, own those choices.

It’s much easier said than done but I think if you keep asking yourself these questions as a reminder and answer them honestly, then it would be easier to focus on what really matters to you whatever that may be.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

This is a book that has been on my ‘to read list’ for quite some time. I’m glad I finally picked it up. It’s a pretty easy read as far as langauge goes but the content is very heavy! It was one of these books that made me be extremely thankful to have been born away from a place where a child would need to face horrific events and live with the memmory of them. Things that adults are unable to deal with. It also brought tears of sadness, pitty and hope into my eyes at several sections of the story.
This is a very honest, raw account of what life was like for Ishmael when forced to become a child soldier in Siera Leon. He fought against the rebel soldiers who also ‘recruited’ children. The account takes the reader on his journey as he transformes from a regular child who has learned to love Shakespeare and loves to rap and perform in talent shows, to a child suffering from insomnia who is most comfortable with his gun and ammunition and can not function without his daily dose of war, blood, cocaine and marijuana.
I remember writing a research paper back in grade 13 about child soldiers. I chose the subject because it was so new to me and I knew I had a lot to find out. What I dug up was shocking! I know I still have my research paper somewhere in the basement. I’d really like to take it out and go over what I had written 8 years ago.
Although I am now familiar with what child soldiers are and what they are forced to go through. This book gave a very different perspective to the issue because of it’s being a first hand account of true events with the use of a child’s voice. It has presented the issue from a different prespective. It’s not an outsider looking in. It’s not about an observer or journalist telling us a story of a boy. It’s not about statistics and numbers. It’s about the innocence of a child robbed; and it’s written by the boy himself.
The book also brings a tremendous amount of hope. I don’t know too much about Ishmael now. However, I do know that he is a part of the Free the Children Organization as well as the Me to We effort, based in Toronto, that bring together youth to carry out global projects building schools and providing basic facilities such as clean water in remote areas in underdeveloped regions. I believe he is also a motivational speaker. Now here is a person I’d really like to meet!
This is a story of one of the lucky ones though. One of the very few who have made it out alive.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who can appreciate what it is to be human.
p.s there are quite a few links in this post but I think they’re well worth checking out :@)