[Some book and TV series spoilers]

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.

“En esta vida no todos obtienen lo que quieren”, le dice el ama de llaves a Eve casi al final de La camarista, tras negarle un merecido ascenso. Este primer largometraje de Lila Avilés nos enfrenta a esta realidad, la de miles de personas cuyo empleo no tiene reconocimiento o recompensa satisfactoria, aquellos trabajadores invisibilizados que contribuyen a que el sistema siga funcionando. La mirada sobria de Avilés, casi documental, hacia este mundo no pretende dar una moraleja sino ser un campo fértil para la reflexión.

La camarista guarda algunas similitudes con Roma de Alfonso Cuarón al ser un slice of life de una trabajadora cuya labor no siempre es bien agradecida por sus empleadores. Evelina (Gabriela Cartol) es una chica de 24 años que tiene que trabajar en un hotel ejecutivo para mantener a su hijo. La mayor parte de su vida transcurre dentro del edificio donde labora, donde la gente alrededor de ella espera resultados y subordinación. El trato con los huéspedes es prácticamente nulo, algunas veces indigno, siempre bajo una dinámica implícita de sumisión, pues los únicos deseos que importan son los del cliente.

Eve recupera su humanidad momentáneamente cuando habla por teléfono con su hijo, un recordatorio de que debe aguantar el día a día por el bien mayor. Su relación con otros empleados, particularmente Minitoy, también ayudan a mitigar el tedio y dan un escape momentáneo a las repetitivas y arduas tareas de Eve. Pero la protagonista no está resignada a su condición actual, sus acciones indican que quiere superarse, sin embargo las condiciones de su entorno no siempre lo permitirán. Cuando no le dan un esperado ascenso o las clases para empleados son abruptamente canceladas, no hay lugar para la queja. Hay más habitaciones por asear y el sistema no permite que alguien sea improductivo.

A diferencia de Roma, cuya fotografía y dirección creaban cuadros hermosos, casi poéticos, que enaltecían escenas cotidianas, en La camarista las imágenes son claustrofóbicas y opresivas, llegando incluso a ser abstractas ocasionalmente. Sin recurrir al melodrama y libre de idealizaciones, entendemos perfectamente la frustración y enojos de Eve. Cuando las adversidades llegan, no tenemos opción más que absorberlas y guardarlas, pues rara vez se nos permite la catarsis.

La película de Avilés no tiene necesariamente el objetivo de entretener: es lenta, silenciosa y no está preocupada por crear escenas dramáticas si no son necesarias. El disfrute de ver esta obra está directamente ligada a la capacidad de empatía y esfuerzo intelectual que se quiera emplear. Ver a Eve trabajar a solas en tareas mundanas como tallar una bañera o atendiendo a personas ingratas, sin ningún tipo de exageración, deja en el espectador la tarea de encontrarle significado.

Personalmente, La camarista (al igual que Roma) me parece una película imprescindible para comprender el México en el que vivimos, para tener una visión más amplia que vaya más allá de la vida de la gente rica y su opulencia o los problemas de violencia que vive el país. La desigualdad social, el clasismo y el racismo son un lado oscuro del país que no queremos ver (en el cine), por eso es importante enfrentarlo y mostrarlo honestamente. Por eso es importante dignificar y darle voz a aquellos que la sociedad nos ha hecho pensar que no importan. Eve es un personaje digno, fuerte y que no se da por vencido a pesar de que a su entorno no le interesa si triunfa o no. El final abierto no nos da un indicio sobre su futuro, si su vida será buena o mala. Eso ya es decisión del espectador, así como pensarlo dos veces antes de hacer un tiradero en un hotel porque “alguien más lo va a limpiar”.

Si no todos vamos a cumplir nuestros sueños, debemos aprender a encontrar la felicidad en las cosas pequeñas. Yo quisiera creer en el goce de aprender algo nuevo, de platicar con los amigos, de leer por gusto o incluso de la esperanza de recibir un vestido rojo del lost and found.

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.