Finished this book (a while ago): Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

 

I’ve been falling behind on posting book reviews lately, but the books themselves are all stacked up waiting for me to blog about them. Problem is, the more I read, the less I remember about each individual book I read last year to be able to review it… But here I go anyway!

My mom gave me Atwood’s book Hag-Seed a year or so ago, and although I was very much looking forward to reading it, it took me a while to get around to it. Around the time I had finally picked it off the shelf and placed it by my bed to read, I started seeing posts on Facebook about how Atwood was defending someone who’d been accused of sexual assault, and rules-lawyering about reasonable doubt and giving men a chance. I was so irritated and disappointed, as it seemed at that time that every time I turned around, another woman whom I had previously thought reasonable was siding against victims and with predators. So I ignored the book for a few more weeks, and once I did start to read it, I was in a frame of mind to be extra critical of it.

And I did indeed find much to criticise. Or at least much to be disappointed in. The only three female characters were 1) a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, 2) a trying-too-hard femme d’un certain âge scorned by the protagonist, and 3) the out-of-work actress he originally wanted as his Miranda twelve years earlier who is willing, available, flexible, and eager to rush in to fill the role. The protagonist himself, Felix, is a narcissistic, vengeful man who feels that his artistic brilliance justified anything he chooses to do. The prison, prison guards, and inmates are portrayed so unrealistically that I have to assume that even people who have never been to or worked in a jail must be unconvinced.

Now maybe, I thought while reading the book, perhaps this was all a brilliant work of irony or satire or theatrics. Maybe the theatrical nature of this—a book which creates a play within a play based on a play outside the book—is actually a fourth play—the book itself—with liberties taken for the sake of the staging and the plot.

But I found the protagonist tiresome and whiny, the two live female characters superficial and unrealistic, and the portrayal of jail guards and inmates condescending.

What I did enjoy was the dive into The Tempest itself, and the different interpretations of the play and its various parts. It’s not a play I’ve ever read or seen; having only picked up some of its pieces bit by bit through references elsewhere, it was interesting and intriguing to have this be my first real introduction to it, and I wonder how much more I might have appreciated this book if I had been familiar with The Tempest beforehand.

And the other thing, a little thing but something that gave me great pleasure, was that when Felix had the inmates working on the play, all regular curse words were forbidden. Instead, they could only use the curse words from the play itself. This playfulness and the way it is taken to heart by the inmate-actors was quite lovely.

After reading this book, I discovered that it is part of the Hogarth Project, which has contemporary authors re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays. That did put the book in a new light for me, seeing that Atwood was writing within certain constraints. It makes me more appreciate that Felix/Prospero is the protagonist not because Atwood decided to write about a self-involved man with little regard for others, but because he is, simply, the obvious protagonist. It also put the inmates in a different position: Atwood is not forcing them awkwardly into the various roles, but showing how the play’s characters are relevant to and reflected in people in all times. So I felt a bit more generous toward both the author and the book after discovering this context.

That said, I am sorely disappointed in the lack of feminism, woman-centredness, or politics beyond the petty (etc.) in this book. My expectations of Atwood were formed by Surfacing and The Edible Woman back when I just hitting puberty. Hag-Seed just doesn’t come close to that style, subtlety, or layering.

I have no interest in re-reading this book, and it will go into my giveaway pile.

Disclaimer: this review is thinner than it could have been, as I read the book quite a while ago…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Stranger in the Night (or, The Fluffy Dog Does a Good Job)

The Fluffy Dog is a happy guy!

 

I woke up to someone touching my foot. I assumed it was my sweetie passing by the foot of the bed, so I pulled my foot away to give him more room, and as I moved, I realised that he was actually still in the bed with me.

Must have been the dog, I thought, still half-asleep. So I stretched my foot out over the end of the bed to poke the Fluffy Dog and see if he was standing up. What I encountered with my foot was something that felt like a very large, tightly-packed duffel bag. That woke me up completely: oh my god, something fell on the dog!

I flung myself out of bed, grabbed my glasses, and reached for the light switch all at the same time. But what I saw when the light went on was confusing. There was something large on the floor wedged between the foot of the bed and the cupboard, and I could see the back end of the Fluffy Dog stretched out beyond it.

It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: a large person was crouched right down on the ground, with their arms wrapped around my dog. I couldn’t understand what was going on! As a very light sleeper, it was incomprehensible to me that someone could have come right into my house and my bedroom at night without waking me up, especially given the mid-moving state of my house (think Obstacle Course meets Hoarders). (Meanwhile, my sweetie is out of bed: “what the hell…?”) The only thing that made sense to my groggy brain was that it was my brother who was somehow in trouble or drunk or sick and who decided to take comfort with the Fluffy Dog rather than wake me up.

So I said, “Hey. Hey!” and reached down to the scruff of the intruder’s neck, grabbed hold of their hoodie, and started hauling upward. The person offered no resistance, but as I pulled his head up, we could see that this was definitely not my brother. This guy was a stranger. A BIG stranger. “This dog brought me here,” he said. He was young, like late teens? He repeated: “This dog brought me here” and my sweetie said “Dude, you have to leave” as I moved away from the bedroom door so the guy could leave. “This dog brought me here!” By now he was almost standing; it all happened so fast. “Okay man, but this isn’t your home and you have to leave now,” my sweetie told him.

Now the stranger started turning around to face me and the door: “I thought this was my group home. Where’s my group home?”

“I think it’s across the street,” I told him. “I’ll show you.” He bent to pick up his backpack which he had placed neatly by the bedroom door, and looked back at the Fluffy Dog. “This dog. This dog brought me here. Where’s my group home?”

I flipped on the hallway light and let the confused young man precede me to the back door. He let himself out the side gate and I closed it behind him, not waiting to see if he got to the group home across the street.

And then I sat down with the shakes. Of course I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, for many reasons. All of the “what ifs,” of course, the horrible things that could have happened if that person had been someone violent. Or if we had found him in my stepdaughter’s bedroom instead of ours. Or if my Fluffy Dog had made even a single squeak of pain or fear. All the violence that could have erupted from him or from us. But also the shattering of my belief that my sensitive hearing and my being a light sleeper will protect or forewarn me of this kind of thing. For thirteen years, I have slept most summer nights with that back door open for the breeze. No more. It is a huge change in my self-perception.

The young man smelled like he’d had a bit to drink, but he didn’t stink of booze. He seemed more lost, confused, and perhaps scared than drunk or angry. The next morning I texted the manager of the group home across the street but it turns out this wasn’t one of their clients. I sure hope he got home okay.

But the most amazing thing to me was the Fluffy Dog. He has really come into his own since the Brindle Dog died in May. That’s often how it goes: the next dog gets to bloom once the bossy paw of the eldest dog is lifted. It is clear now that he would have been a marvelous therapy dog.

The Brindle Dog would have gone ballistic if a stranger entered the house (which is probably part of the reason I felt so safe at night). Even when known people entered, she was all bark and growl and spit and gleaming fang.

But the Fluffy Dog is a different sort. As that stranger crouched down on the floor and clutched him, the Fluffy Dog was powerfully calm. He worked hard to comfort that confused young man, to create and maintain a safe little space for him, to make him feel seen and held.

And it worked. Not just on the mystery intruder, but also on me and my sweetie. In a situation where any of us could have panicked and escalated things, we were all calm and reasonable. I am actually quite amazed at that. I don’t know that young man, of course; perhaps he is always so low-key. But my partner and I can both lose our shit lightning quick if we or someone we love is being threatened. That night, with a stranger in our bedroom in the middle of the night, and my partner’s daughter in the room across the hall, we barely even raised our voices. Nobody moved quickly. Nobody lost their temper. I don’t know how to explain this other than by the hard work and skills of the Fluffy Dog.

It’s hard to write this and harder to tell people about it. Partly because I get flak for sleeping with my door open. But mostly because I am such an anti-woowoo person. I don’t want people to laugh at me for believing my dog has some kind of mental valium-like superpowers. Or for believing that my dog was a huge factor in getting us all through that situation safely and calmly. I’m the one who looks down my nose at blind faith, who adores the scientific method. I know there’s stuff we can’t explain yet, and I’m willing to reserve judgement on most of that, but the facts about a lot of things are already out there and I’m pretty contemptuous of people who ignore them (I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers) or who put their faith in movie stars for health advice (jade eggs / glitter in your vagina, really?), for example.

But the Fluffy Dog has done this before, at least once that I know of:

A few weeks after the Brindle Dog died, I had a full-on panic attack for the first time in a long while. I was in the bedroom folding my laundry when the shakiness and nausea started, and then the tightness in my chest, and then the whimpering. I was trying to take calming breaths, to focus on things around me, to use my strategies. But the crying started and both my sweetie and the Fluffy Dog came rushing into the bedroom. I was crying and gasping “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I think I’m dying, I’m so sorry” and my partner was trying to parse out what was going on and what he could do for me.

But the Fluffy Dog shoved himself past my sweetie’s legs and pressed his body against me so I was tucked snugly between him and the wall. That good dog turned his head watched me very seriously, his expression calm but intense, and he didn’t let up the body pressure even when I threw my arms around him and sobbed into his fur.

The Fluffy Dog stayed with me that day until the last shakiness had subsided, and then he climbed onto the bed with me afterward when I was completely exhausted and ready for a nap. He took it all very seriously, and knew just what to do. It was immensely reassuring and calming to be “held” by the pressure of his body like that, and to feel seen and loved.

So as weird or woowoo or unscientific as it sounds, I think my good hardworking dog knew exactly what he was doing when he helped me through my panic attack. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he helped all three of us through that stranger’s visit in the night.

This dog is my dear friend and an absolute goofball. But also—no matter how self-conscious I am about saying this—, he is a creature of immense power. I believe in him and I feel tremendously lucky to be protected by him.

Being Queer on the Exam Table

During my recent medical checkup , I discovered that my healthcare practitioner is homophobic.

It has been four or five years since she asked about any sexual activity on my part, probably assuming that after my divorce I wasn’t hooking up with anyone. But now that my new partner (cis male) has moved in, she was asking about birth control, a possible STI check, and general questions about my sex life.

When I replied to a question by saying that no, PIV / penetrative sex is not the main kind of sex I have with my partner, she looked confused. So I added: “Well, I’m queer, right?” (I don’t know what I thought this would explain, but I felt sure this had come up at some time in the past, and I thought I was reminding her…?)

She still looked confused so I added “Like, bisexual?” (trying to dumb it down) “Like, I’ve had lots of sex where there wasn’t even a penis in the room?” and then she looked super surprised and said “You mean you have relationships with women outside of your relationship at home?”

No!” I exclaimed, scooching my naked butt down to the edge of the exam table for my pap test. And she looked flustered as she busied herself unwrapping the speculum: “…but if you’re…?”

I put my feet together and dropped my knees outward so she could head into my vagina with her gear. “This relationship is monogamous,” I told her. “I mean, sex is sex. If you adore blondes but you’re with a brunette, that doesn’t mean you have to sleep with blondes on the side, right?”

But then I dropped it, because the cold speculum was going in and I felt really, horribly, uncomfortably exposed and anxious and unsafe in a way that had nothing to do with the pap test in progress.

Her assumption that as a queer (or I guess “bi,” since she didn’t really seem to understand “queer”)  woman, I would of COURSE be screwing women outside of my relationship at home shocked me. Not that I want people to assume that everyone is monogamous, either, but the assumption of promiscuity—relationships with women, not with a woman—I don’t know how to explain it; it was a combination of word choice, tone of voice, and body language that made me feel as if all the negative and conservative connotations of “promiscuity” were running through her head (as opposed to, say, a respectful grasp of the concept of non-monogamy).

Because look. Being queer or bi doesn’t mean I can’t be monogamous. Being a cis woman who was married to a cis man for years doesn’t mean I can’t be queer. Being in a monogamous relationship and screwing someone else would make me a cheating asshole. Whether we’re monogamous or polyamorous or cis or gay or trans or whatever the hell we are, we deserve to have our healthcare providers ask respectfully—or at the very least, professionally—about these things rather than assuming and presuming *the worst (*it’s hard to articulate this because while in my world it’s 100% fine to fuck as many people as you want any way you want as long as everyone is honest and consenting, the attitude I was getting from my practitioner is that these “relationships with other women” were putting me in the “slut” category which personally isn’t a word I stigmatize but obviously carries negative weight for her… does that make any kind of sense?)

The assumption that a queer / bi woman has to be fucking both men and women (never mind the assumption that “men” and “women” are the only ones out there). The assumption that the sex life of a cis woman and a cis man would obviously consist mostly of penis-in-vagina sex. The assumption of heterosexuality in the first place. The confusion and surprise and discomfort she could not even suppress in this interaction.

I am disappointed that some healthcare providers are still so ignorant about LGBTQ* people. I am enraged that the same old, tired, ridiculous assumptions and stereotypes are present even in a professional setting. I am shocked that this particular provider didn’t even know enough to shut her mouth about her biases.

But mostly I am sad and hurt and feeling bleak about our continued working relationship as well as the difficulty of potentially trying to find a new healthcare provider.

She made me feel alien. Other. Misunderstood. Judged. And ultimately unsafe.

Those are terrible feelings to have about the person I have to trust with my iffy health.

 

 

 

Finished this book: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

tigana

There aren’t a lot of men on my list of favourite authors, but this guy is one of the exceptions. I’ve read most of his books many times. They are “comfort books” for me: lovely stories well-told. This is probably my tenth or twelfth re-read of Tigana, and I’m keeping it to read again.

Continue reading

“The Miracle Thyroid Diet,” My Ass!

Almost nothing makes me as hostile as seeing people wreck their health to meet bullshit arbitrary beauty standards. So I was enraged a couple-three weeks ago as I stood line at the grocery store reading the magazine headlines (my sole source of celebrity news) and saw the following:

thyroidcureimage

Really, people? REALLY?

Hyperthyroidism is no joke

I am currently in the middle of my third round of hyperthyroidism. It is no fucking joke. It can have long-term effects on your body (even after being treated) including increased risk of such fun things as heart attack, stroke, atrial fibrillation, osteoporosis, congestive heart failure, and even serious vision impairment.

This is how hyperthyroidism feels for me

When I’m hyperthyroid, I get anxious to the point of fear, I get palpitations, shakiness, and trembling hands, I’m hungry all the time, eating four or five full meals a day and pooping twice as often (and as much!) as usual. I randomly break into sweats. At first, before the thyroid hormone levels get too high, I get up in the morning with incredible bursts of energy but it is jittery and unproductive, as if I’ve had three hours of sleep and seven cups of coffee. As time goes on, I am just tired and hyper at the same time, my heart racing but the rest of me just wanting to rest. Having a shower or folding my laundry can suddenly make my heart race and my whole body break into a sweat, leaving me exhausted. However, no matter how exhausted I am, I can’t sleep a full night, as my pounding heart wakes me up at 120 or more bpm. My already high blood pressure is exacerbated. I can hear my own heartbeat like somebody’s bass played too loud a few houses down. My arms and legs are weak and I can’t do my normal daily things like walk the dog or run up the stairs. This is worsening over time, and will not improve until my hyperthyroidism is fully treated, which can take months.

Weight loss, hair loss, and bug eyes

The first time I was hyperthyroid, I didn’t know what was going on, and it took quite a while for me to get myself to a doctor for it. By then, I was losing weight no matter how much I ate. A “silver lining,” one of my aunties called it, and I almost decked her. That kind of weight loss is horrible. I did not become fit and toned. No, I was loose-skinned and bug-eyed, and my hair was falling out. I lost close to half my hair at that time.

And back to the bug eyes for a minute: Grave’s disease, an autoimmune disorder which is the form of hyperthyroidism that I have, can also have permanent unpleasant effects on your eyes. They bug out from the pressure of inflammation. This can lead to permanent difficulties with vision. Today as I write this, I have blurred and double vision, as my eyes are not tracking together due to uneven pressure. So I’m also getting frequent headaches, as my job involves sitting at a computer all day.

Hyperthyroidism outweighs your petty cosmetic concerns

So my question is, why would anyone want to simulate this? When I was trying to find an image of the magazine cover I’d seen to include in this blog post, I was angry and shocked at just how many magazine covers there are out there touting hyperthyroidism–or, as we should be calling it here, thyrotoxicity–as a reasonable weight loss tool. I am horrified and frankly disgusted that anyone would see thyrotoxicity as a good idea for losing weight. Honestly, and with all understanding and due respect for the way society pressures us to conform to beauty standards and also for all the ways in which our own damaged self-esteem makes us feel that our worth depends on meeting those standards and and also for all the ways we can be devalued for not engaging in the project of trying to be outwardly the whitest, thinnest, blandest Barbies in town, I honestly have to say if you are that fucking desperate to lose weight for appearances, get yourself some goddam therapy, or research the Health At Any Size movement, or stop hanging around with assholes who judge you for your appearance, or god, I don’t know but just STOP

STOP STOPSTOPSTOP STOP

STOP!!!!! damaging your HEALTH and your LIFE and your HEART and your EYES for the sake of losing weight.

There is NO WORLD in which thyrotoxicity can be reframed as a healthy way to lose weight. Don’t even go there. There is no fucking silver lining, dear auntie. Inducing or prolonging hyperthyroidism to lose weight is self-destructive and ridiculous. I don’t wish this disease on anyone, but if you’re going to do it on purpose, well, one potential outcome of hyperthyroidism is death. Be careful what you wish for.

What I Learned from my Dog about PTSD

When the Brindle Dog was young, she was amazingly strong and focused. Her parents were bred for police work in the Netherlands, and that likely would have been her destiny as well if I hadn’t scooped her up as a house pet.

She could swim or train for hours. She would never give up on a task unless called off. She could joyfully chase a ball or Kong in the park for hours with breathtaking stamina and endurance. She took pride in her ability to execute commands perfectly, and she was also an enterprising problem-solver.

As she aged and got sick, her stamina waned. She weakened. She started to get confused. As her cataracts spread, as her hearing diminished, and as her cancer extended its tentacles and tumours further into her body, the Brindle Dog began to stumble and fall. Her back legs would sometimes give out. She would struggle to right herself and keep going, but I stopped taking her on walks, and just threw sticks (her favourite game) in the yard for her.

The day came when I couldn’t even throw sticks for her anymore, because she kept falling down when trying to chase them. I had to just drop the stick a foot or two in front of her, and she’d grab it.

It was heartbreaking. She used to have the strength and drive and form of an Olympic athlete. She was tireless! Her enthusiasm for work and play was incredible. And now she was a tottering little old lady, half-deaf, half-blind, exhausted from severe anemia, barely able hold her bladder for more than a few hours. I was angry and miserable. Fuck cancer! Look at how age and illness had taken this amazing dog and pounded her down!

But at the same time, I was so glad to be able to provide palliative care and to sweeten my dear dog’s last days with extra love and attention. As she drew closer to the end, and as I turned myself away from the “extraneous” things in my life to be as present as possible with her, I noticed one particular thing I had missed:

In her younger days, when she chased a thrown stick or toy, she would pounce on it with pride and enthusiasm. As she got weaker, her desire to chase that stick never waned, even though her body was failing. And near the end, when I would drop the stick pretty much right in front of her nose, she would still pounce on it with all the energy and drive she could muster, then look up at me proudly, panting from that slight effort, her gums white and her eyes cloudy, but still full of anticipation, wanting me to ask for the stick back so we could do it again.

She was always and only and forever living in the present. She was in pain, but she wanted that stick. She was confused, but her love of this particular game never left her. And whether she had raced across a field to retrieve that stick, or had pounced on it right at her feet, she was happy. She was doing a thing she loved, and it made no difference to her that she used to be able to do it better, or that other dogs could do it better, or that she would never race across a field again.

And that was the thing I had missed. It is okay to be happy doing the things I can do, even though my life will never be what it could have been without abuse and trauma. I will never have a life where my past didn’t happen to me. Therapy isn’t going to take it away or make any of it okay. What I do have, if I let myself have it, is the ability to pounce on that stick even if I’m confused or in pain.

The shit that was done to me will never be gone. I guess somehow I thought that recovery or healing meant I would be done with it. PTSD and the accompanying depression and anxiety mean that I am living with some very real limitations that have consequences in my everyday life, and I may or may not be able to change (some of) those. It’s hard not to be angry and bitter about the fact that my life is smaller than it could have been because of abusers.

But now I realise that recovery and healing, for me, are about figuring out how to live my life with joy and anticipation despite the pain. By example, the Brindle Dog showed me how to accept limitations and just keep living as fully as I can. If I can’t race across the field, I can still grab the stick at my feet with pride.

 

The Brindle Dog died peacefully last week. She carried her stick to the car on her way to the vet. She walked in to her appointment on her own wobbly legs. I cuddled her until she was gone. She was the best dog ever.

 

 

 

Finished this book: Driving Lessons by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book "Driving Lessons" by Zoe Fishman

Cover of the book “Driving Lessons” by Zoe Fishman

Every woman in this book wants babies. Even the woman who doesn’t think she wants babies suddenly wants them when she becomes pregnant. The woman who has to get a hysterectomy because she has frikkin CANCER doesn’t worry about metastasis or life expectancy but is only sad because no babies. The woman who already has babies is half-crazy from lack of sleep and how her selfhood is subsumed into motherhood, but she is constantly insisting that it is all worth it because she loves her babies so much. The protagonist is initially scared to become a mother but all it takes is some well-placed words from her husband and her friend with cancer and her nursing sister-in-law to make her see that actually she wants very much to have babies,

There’s nothing wrong with wanting or having babies. I mean, it’s not an urge I have ever understood, personally. But I do understand that it’s a big deal for a lot of people.

However, for there to be not one woman in this book to decide that in the end she is really happier without babies, or for there not to be any woman who says actually having babies is a mixed bag (without immediately blissing out about how it’s always worth it all the damn time because they love their baby so much) just requires too much suspension of my disbelief. I’ve hated my PUPPIES in the middle of the night when they wouldn’t let me sleep, never mind a kid!

The men in this book are basically all generic good-guy husbands / boyfriends. They seemed pretty much interchangeable to me.

This book is solidly embedded in a white, privileged, able-bodied, heteronormative, ciscentric, classist, and patriarchal worldview, right down to the entitlement and condescension of some of the men, and the utter lack of awareness thereof on the part of the women involved with them. The supporting characters were mostly stereotypes (the Beautiful Blonde, the Drawling Southerner, and so forth).

The dialogue was awkward in that it was too “therapy-esque” all the time, with the characters examining their motivations and drives and articulating them in a way that almost seems like they’re all in a joint therapy or mediation session. The dialogue “tells” too much instead of letting the story show the character development.

There was also a weird theme about ladybugs…? It never really developed into anything and it seemed out of place.

The only thing I really appreciated about this book was its insistence that women’s friendships are important, valuable, and sustaining. The existing and developing connections between the female characters was lovely, and this theme is (for me) the redeeming quality of this book.

Also, the theme / metaphor of the driving lessons was effective. And the way in which the driving lessons ended up helping the protagonist find a new career path was underplayed but very nicely done. It is portrayed as work she’ll probably love, so it’s too bad its value was framed more as being work she could do even when she becomes a mother.

If you aren’t bothered by lack of diversity and you’ve got a few hours at the beach to kill, this is an easy read with some nice friendships between women. Don’t expect any drama, depth, or character / plot development, though; this book, like its protagonist, is shallow, simple, and bland.