I was inspired by the angels Baruch and Balthamos, two characters that first appear at the end of The Subtle Knife, the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Their book description is tricky to imagine: they seem to be made of light but appear amost invisible to the eye during the day.
I admire that their relationship is not hidden from the reader. They are explicitly in love and are quite affectionate towards each other, without it being treated like an oddity or pandering. Good LGBT+ representation in children’s/YA fantasy is always welcomed.
Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of books is known for its very explicit anti-religion themes, which can be straightforwardly interpreted as atheist. Watering down this aspect to avoid controversy was one of the reasons the 2007 Hollywood movie adaptation, The Golden Compass, didn’t succeed. Fortunately, the BBC/HBO TV series appears to be on the right track by following the books more closely in this regard, and I couldn’t be more excited. The exploration of religion and spirituality is one of the reasons these books are some of my favorites. I believe it is important for media aimed at young people to explore these ideas and hopefully spark introspection and reflection.
My Religious Background
I was raised Catholic like the majority (81%) of the Mexican population. Since I was a kid I became aware of religion’s role in our life; it was everywhere: in holidays, everyday speech, jewelry, in household paintings and imagery, and even some of our core societal values. As I got older I started questioning my own beliefs and, coupled with my awareness of other religions, let myself contemplate other spiritual options besides my family’s faith.
As a teenager with a queer sexuality, I was severely at odds with Catholicism. The shame and guilt associated with homosexuality was so harmful that distancing myself from the Church was a logical and definite step to move forward in my life. Besides, as a rational thinker, many concepts from the Bible rang hollow to me.
I believed in being good and helping others, but I couldn’t accept the more out there, faith-based ideas like an omnipresent god, sin, or an afterlife in heaven (or hell). Despite having made up my mind though, I respected the taboo of never openly questioning my family’s religion, like it was something so personal that it was outside of the realm of critique. Pondering about existential questions alone would become a mentally exhausting and lonely activity.
Thankfully, when I was around 19, a college professor recommended Pullman’s books to the class. He hyped them so much that I bought them soon after with my first summer job paycheck. Upon starting reading The Golden Compass, I felt this was a different kind of YA fantasy novel, compared to ones like Harry Potter (which I also liked a lot). I was immediately intrigued and fascinated by daemons, the physical manifestation of people’s souls. Lyra’s story was thematically complex and theologically challenging. This was not only a highly entertaining story with endearing characters, but also a bold and ambitious work of fiction about how to find spiritual fulfillment without God or religion. Reading them was a very rewarding and satisfying experience that I wish I had gotten to know sooner.
Killing God (Spoilers)
Pullman’s anti-religious ideas are not subtext, but actual text in the story; Lord Asriel’s determined goal of killing God no matter the consequences is anything but subtle. The Magisterium, a more powerful and oppressive version of the Catholic Church, is the main antagonistic organization. We see a world which has fallen under their strict control, where free-thinking is discouraged for fear of repression. Any idea that challenges the Church is suppressed, in a clear parallel to not only the Catholic Church of the past, but other religions and authoritative regimes as well.
One of the worst characteristics of the Magisterium is their dreadful treatment of children. The Gobblers can be read as a metaphor for the child sexual abuse by the clergy. Severing kids’ daemons leaves them stunted for life or even dead, much like trauma does to real life victims. In The Amber Spyglass the Church purposefully tries to kill Lyra in an effort to stop her from (supposedly) bringing another Fall to humanity. The Magisterium is presented as despicable and corrupt to the core, in a deliberate attempt to show how unrestricted power and zealotry can affect people, especially young ones, living under a theocratic society.
God, referred to as The Authority, does exist in the world of His Dark Materials, but he’s not portrayed in the traditional Christian way. As the very first angel created from Dust, he gained his power by telling the subsequent angels and beings that the universe and all life on it were his doing. But as time passed, his body turned old and frail and his regent Metatron would take his place. Metatron doesn’t let The Authority die, in an effort to not disturb the control and influence they already possess in the multiple worlds.
One of the key symbolic moments of the final battle is when Will, unknowingly but compassionately, releases The Authority from his crystal prison. I interpret this scenario as Pullman saying the traditional God figure, an omnipotent all powerful ancient man, is an outdated concept that must be put to rest. It is meaningful that two children in a quest to understand the nature of life, death, knowledge, and conscience, are the ones that put an end to this old being. God, longing for rest, shows a peaceful and liberating expression as he finally dissolves into the air.
Knowing about the wrongdoings and corruption of the Catholic Church throughout history, there is something extremely satisfying and subversive about it being the main antagonistic force in literature aimed at a young audience. Pullman does not pull any punches, the criticism is not disguised or sugar-coated. Characters like Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, the witches, and Mary Malone (my favorite) all spell out matter-of-fact criticism of Christianity. All this could very easily become preachy, but Pullman’s characters do have their own character arcs and goals, not limited to only spout out “agenda”.
Pullman has expressed that his books are not specifically anti-Catholic, but rather anti-dogma. In the end, the storytelling, in my opinion, succeeds because plot, characters, and world building are masterfully blended with thematic richness. The author encourages the reader to live life to the fullest and share our stories, to seek truth and knowledge but also to take a moment to appreciate the big and small wonders of nature, to value and nurture our emotional connection with others, regardless if they’re ice bears, witches, Texans, or from another world.
His Dark Materials power relies on making accesible deep (and sometimes tough) questions about our own spirituality. There are many ways in which we can find spiritual fulfillment, religion is not the only way. Everyone should be reminded of that, especially young people who sometimes don’t even know they are allowed to think for themselves about these matters.
I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after watching the first few episodes of the TV series. The book was a fascinating read because Gilead, unlike other fictional dystopias, felt like something that could actually happen or may be even going on right now, to some extent, in some parts of the world. Social anxieties from the 80’s like women’s reproductive rights and oppressive gender roles are, sadly, still very relevant today, making the book feel eerily current.
The original novel’s subject matter is no easy read as the acts of cruelty done to woman are deplorable and infuriating, and worse of all based on historical practices according to Atwood. Offred’s narration reads like a disorienting and claustrophobic nightmare, something the first season of the series captures perfectly (minus some questionable “badass” musical montages). The book is ambiguous about the protagonist’s fate (not even her real name is revealed) but the epilogue leaves a glimpse of hope when it confirms that Gilead would eventually fall.
The second season of the TV show continued directly after Offred’s book ending and stretched out her story to exhausting lengths, leading to a third and even more confirmed seasons to come. I must confess I stopped watching after the first couple of episode into the third season, since it started feeling like glacially paced misery porn not even Elisabeth Moss’s great performance could make bearable. After spoiling myself the latest season’s ending I don’t think I’ll give the show another chance, since the speculative fiction turning into almost fantasy isn’t sitting well on me.
Enter The Testaments, Atwood’s direct sequel to the original book, released 34 years after the original and set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ending. Not following the TV series canon, the story follows three different women affected by Gilead’s regime, none of them handmaids. After being disappointed by the repetitive TV show, this is a very welcomed breath of fresh air. Horrific and tragic things do happen, but hope is more prevalent this time around, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Aunt Lydia, one of the most captivating antagonists from the first book and the series, is now a point of view character and is fascinatingly fleshed out. Through Offred’s eyes, the aunt was a cruel and hateful woman, but The Testaments lets Lydia speak for herself. Her chapters are presented as her own written testimony and reveal her moral complexity and sometimes even evoke sympathy for her. Yes, she has committed atrocious acts but we get an understanding of her reasons. In fact she is one of the key figures to the downfall of Gilead, with the help of Agnes and Daisy, the other two main characters.
Agnes is a girl raised in Gilead by a Commander and a Wife, after being separated from her mother at a very early age. Her story is as compelling as Aunt Lydia’s because it showcases the way education works under the regime and the psychological impact it has on the children, particularly the “privileged” girls like her friend Becka. Learning to be a dutiful wife coupled with the suppression of her real desires creates unmanageable distress and a pessimistic view of life, not far away from considering suicide as a viable option to escape. Her only other choice to avoid her unwanted fate is becoming an aunt with the help of Aunt Lydia.
Daisy is a rebellious teenage girl living in Canada with her adoptive parents. Of the three protagonists, her journey is the weakest one in my opinion, playing out too much like a conventional YA chosen one journey without any subversion. After tragedy strikes, Daisy is taken by the Mayday organization, which had already been established in the first book as an underground rebellion group that helped handmaids and children escape from Gilead while also working to take down the government.
Not everything is wrong with Daisy’s part though. Her chapters are actually the most dynamic and add a real sense of urgency, compared to the more subdued psychological conflicts of the other two women. We also get more world building through the introduction of the Pearl Girls, missionaries who recruit girls from around the world to bring to Gilead. Additionally, we get a glimpse of how Canadians and other nations deal with Gilead, something only previously shown in the series.
As expected, the three stories eventually converge and everyone has a part to play in Gilead’s inevitable downfall. The final act comprises of the adventure Agnes and Daisy escaping from Gilead with key information while Aunt Lydia deals with the chaos that ensues and her enemies close to finding out her real agenda.
I consider The Testaments a success at exploring more facets of Gilead ripe for dissection. Atwood’s decision to shift the focus away from the handmaids and the use of a time skip were very much needed, there is just so much handmaid suffering we can endure before exhaustion, as the show proves.
The exploration of Aunt Lydia’s psyche was a very welcome surprise. Feeling sympathy for her is complicated because we know she is capable of consciously abusing others, but nonetheless she is still a woman living under an oppressive, unjust system where women hold on to whatever power they can amass. And she is indeed playing a long term game by helping Mayday while risking her own life in the process. Aunts and wives are indeed complicit in perpetuating misogyny as means of self-preservation. What we do with that idea is up to the reader, but it is symbolic that Aunt Lydia’s statue is shown as a decaying relic of the past.
Atwood makes it clear that the theocratic, fascist Gilead is rotten at its very core and its injustices and power imbalance are the reasons for its eventual collapse. A society where women (and minorities) are not full persons cannot prosper, a lesson that the world unfortunately needs right now.
The original Handmaid’s Tale is a classic and The Testaments is a worthy follow-up. The novels create a wholesome experience that doesn’t actually need the TV show to be fully appreciated. It is a scaringly-close-to-reality tale that echoes current bigoted, misogynistic discourses in politics and religion. That is the real terror we should keep an eye on.
Este año se celebra el 40 aniversario del lanzamiento de El vampiro de la colonia Roma de Luis Zapata, así que me decidí a leerlo tras haber escuchado y leído muchas cosas buenas sobre él. Y efectivamente, ya entiendo por qué es un clásico y por qué causó tanta controversia en 1979.
Adonis García, un huérfano que tiene que recurrir a la prostitución para sobrevivir, es un protagonista con una voz fresca y original, incluso para estándares de 2019. Lo que lo hace muy interesante de leer es que disfruta su sexualidad plenamente, sin remordimiento o culpa. Aún hoy en día es muy común leer o ver historias donde los personajes gays viven atormentados por sus deseos sexuales, en un melodrama de confusión y autoflagelación. Adonis es un grato respiro a este cliché, revolucionario en su momento incluso. El sexo homosexual en este libro se maneja sin tabúes ni connotaciones inmorales, algo muy disruptivo para su tiempo.
La novela está estructurada en capítulos que corresponden a cintas de audio donde el protagonista se explaya sobre su historia personal y vida diaria. El monólogo de Adonis es ágil, ameno y muchas veces gracioso. De hecho el texto carece de puntuación, logrando un efecto convincente de estar escuchando a una persona real hablando. Tal vez mi única crítica con esto sería el uso de muletillas, algunas veces excesivas y distractoras.
Una trama como tal no existe; lo que se nos presenta en El vampiro es una serie de anécdotas y relatos cotidianos sin un conflicto central que guíe la historia por los puntos narrativos convencionales. Lo que sí se logra es obtener una visión general de la vida homosexual en la Ciudad de México/DF, pre-internet y pre-VIH, así como la actitud general de la sociedad al respecto.
La importancia del sexo y las dificultades que conlleva encontrarlo es un tema siempre presente en la novela. Durante esta época, conocer a otros hombres era un reto que involucraba aprender un lenguaje de comunicación no verbal (miradas, poses y actitudes), conocer y responder a las señales e identificar los puntos de encuentro; todo esto mientras se evade a la autoridad que reprendería estos comportamientos. Sabiendo jugar el juego, Adonis libra todos los obstáculos para acostarse con otros hombres, por trabajo, diversión, convivencia o simplemente para escapar de la realidad.
A pesar de las adversidades que atraviesa constantemente, como quedar huérfano o adquirir infecciones de transmisión sexual, Adonis parece nunca perder su optimismo. La prostitución como forma de ganarse la vida se presenta como una elección, algo incluso disfrutable. Pero Zapata no idealiza este estilo de vida; las ganas de vivir libremente y sin dirección cobran factura en la salud de Adonis, quien cae en el alcoholismo y la depresión al enfrentarse la incertidumbre de su futuro. En las últimas cintas se revela el tremendo sufrimiento por el que atraviesa, incluso temiendo por su vida si sigue así.
El final queda abierto, sin una respuesta sobre qué hará nuestro protagonista más adelante en su vida cuando ya no pueda vender su cuerpo. Es un sobreviviente en el paisaje urbano del México conservador del 79, una pieza de un rompecabezas más grande. Afortunadamente, aunque la vida no le favorezca y habite al margen de la sociedad, Adonis nunca se presenta como una figura trágica (ni aspiracional). Simplemente es un hombre siguiendo sus impulsos y sus propias reglas, afrontando las consecuencias de salirse del prototipo del hombre tradicional mexicano.
En 2019, leer El vampiro es asomarse a una ventana al pasado, donde podemos comprobar cuánto hemos avanzado en materia de visibilidad, aceptación y derechos. Los cambios sociales han brindado a la comunidad LGBT+ más apertura para vivir su vida abiertamente, ya no excluidos de la sociedad sino como parte integral de ella. Salir del clóset ya no es algo impensable y conocer a otras personas gays ya no es el reto que era anteriormente. ¿Cómo sería la vida de Adonis si hubiera crecido en esta época? Tal vez más feliz…
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is a tough book to read, not because the form of the text itself is complicated, but because of the uncomfortable, sometimes disturbing, abusive situations we experience through Tara’s eyes. However, this also makes it very inspiring and hopeful when we see her flourish and grow up against all odds. As the title says, the book is nonfiction and deals with the author’s life growing up in a (mostly) secluded Mormon family in Idaho. Homeschooled and sheltered, Tara does not get to know the “real world” until she goes to college, after overcoming her family’s wishes. She has to ultimately face the difficult choice of following the path her family wants for her or creating her own.
From the get go, Tara makes it is clear that this family’s way of life heavily revolves around religious teachings and these ideals are to be followed and cherished above all else. Tara’s father is the unquestionable patriarch of the family and his beliefs shape the lives of his wife and children to a sometimes dangerous degree. One of the first things we learn about them is that before the year 2000, the family is constantly reminded of the incoming end of the world and that they should prepare for it by saving up food. After New Year, though, the paranoia ends abruptly when the world doesn’t actually end, and the previously foreboding issue is never mentioned again. Reality is malleable for Tara, her father bends and shapes her world and she, not knowing better, willingly follows.
Modern medicine and medical are is strictly forbidden by Tara’s father and this leads to disturbing consequences. A car crash where her mother suffers a severe head injury is particularly upsetting to read. Even when she finally leaves home, Tara’s internal monologue makes it clear that her trauma and emotional wounds still haunt her. She has been conditioned to accept and endure pain and suffering.
Mormon girls are not supposed to want anything other than to be housewives and have lots of children. Women are taught to surrender to men and males get the privilege to order and subjugate their wives or even other female relatives. When Tara reaches puberty, her brother Shawn becomes a constant threat, with their interactions reading like a horror story. Misogynistic and cruel, he bullies and abuses Tara physically and psychologically whenever he has the chance. Him acting kind from time to time leaves Tara confused and unable to completely hate him. Her parents won’t believe or acknowledge the situation and thus Tara is gaslighted into thinking it’s her fault. She undeservingly gets called a “whore” and a “slut” but she cannot complain. Westover describes this dynamic of abuse in such a detailed way that we understand why she bottles up and prefers to keep quiet.
Through curiosity and sheer will, Westover realizes she deserves a better life. She sneakily reads science and math books and even gets to take dance lessons (using clothes that cover her up completely), but she is always questioning if she deserves to do what she wants. This is the frustrating main theme of the story. Emotional abuse is something that you carry with you through all your life and growing out of it is a painful, constant process.
Tara eventually gets into college and studies abroad, but her family is always on her mind in one way or another. A phone call or an email from them has the power to reawaken feelings of self-deprecation and shame. She sees herself as an impostor, undeserving of being around other more well-adjusted students. Her achievements are not something her family approve or are proud of, but are rather actually used to shame her from straying away from her loving home and religion. What makes it all more complicated is that she truly, really loves her family, but they are not good for her. Fortunately, two of her brothers who also left home come to support her eventually.
It is satisfying to learn Tara has come very far from where she began, but there is no true happy ending to the story. Growing up and finding yourself is an ongoing process. Our upbringing shapes us, but does not ultimately define us. We cannot let others dictate our path because happiness and life fulfillment come from knowing and nurturing our true self, even if it is irreconcilable with others’ beliefs. Sometimes there is no middle ground and we may have to decide if the people that love us but restrain us from achieving happiness are worth to keep around.
Is intelligence linked to happiness or lack thereof? Can greater knowledge of the world make us better persons? How much does emotional trauma from early in our life affect our present behavior?
Daniel Keyes tackled these themes (among others) poignantly in his 1966 novel Flowers for Algernon. I had learned from Reddit that the book is considered a classic, having multiple movie and TV adaptations, and even a Simpsons episode inspired by it (HOMR). After reading the book, I can say that it is trully a (science fiction) masterpiece.
The premise is quite fascinating: an intelectually disabled man called Charlie Gordon is the first human subject of a scientific experiment that enhances his IQ to that of a super genius. The story follows his personal journey, written in his own journal entries, recording the joy and pain of gaining self-awareness of the world around him.
Charlie starts out as a pretty simple-minded man. He works at a bakery and attends to special education classes for adults to improve himself. After being recommended by his teacher, he is chosen as the first subject of an intelligence enhancing procedure, previously succesful with Algernon, a common lab mouse.
Keyes masterfully takes us inside Charlie’s mind through the use of journal entries, justified in the story as part of the records needed to document the effects of the procedure on the individual. Charlie starts out with a pretty bad writing, resembling that of a kid, but by the time the experiment’s effects sink in, he now has a wide vocabulary and precise writing to express his emotions.
And this is where his emotional conflict begins. Charlie now has access to a wide arrange of knowledge, including the capacity to form thoughts and give name to emotions and events from his past. He recalls the times he was abused by his family for not being a normal boy, the bullying he suffered at work, and even the ethics of using a human being, who cannot give well-reasoned consent, as an object of scientific study. All this takes a toll on his mental and emotional state, morphing his previously naive demeanor into a bitter, self-absorbed one.
Halfway through the story, Charlie falls in love with a woman and his sexual needs flourish too. He is totally unprepared for this and cannot form a mature relationship with her. Later on, he has to confront his family (who had estranged him) and is overwhelmed by the emotions that come back to him. Even with all the knowledge in the world, he doesn’t have the emotional tools to handle these kinds of interactions and situations. Charlie thought his intelligence would be enough to thrive in the world, but he soon realizes it’s not enough.
This, to me, is the most well realised part of the novel. Keyes makes us live as Charlie as he tries to make sense of a cruel and difficult world. Charlie reflects on how times used to be simpler, how he didn’t have to worry about thinking too much, and how rapidly he forgot the wrong done to him, even cruelty. Basically, how many of us, as adults, recall our childhood.
When Algernon’s intelligence begins to decline, Charlie knows his time will come too, and the result is heartbreaking.
I would greatly encourage anyone and especially people who don’t read science fiction to try this book.
P.D. I had pet mice when I was younger and reading about dying mice adds an extra layer of sadness to the story.