Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Queen's Fool - Philippa Gregory

As change of pace I decided to read The Queen’s Fool. I have read Philippa Gregory’s books before, and I’ve always been impressed. The Queen’s Fool was no different; it was very real, poignant, and managed to convey the true depths of human emotion.

The Queen’s Fool (TQF) is a companion to The Other Boleyn Girl (TOBG), which is a well-known best seller that was recently made into a movie. TQF features a lot of the same families that we saw in TOBG, as it is set in England just after the reign of Henry VIII. To very succinctly sum it up, this book follows the succession of first Queen Mary I and then Queen Elizabeth I, as told through the eyes of the court fool, Hannah Green.

While it has the makings of all good historical fiction, (history, intrigue, heartbreak, romance etc.), what I really want to focus on is women’s roles in the mid 1500’s.

Power Dynamic’s in 16th Century Relationships

While I did just give a summary of TQF, you should completely disregard it. This book is really about power dynamics in 16th century relationships. In my humble opinion, the reason this book is able to so successfully portray these dynamics is because it is set at such a turning point in history. Elizabeth I was about to take the throne and become the first queen to truly rule in her own right. The world was battling over religion, and fighting the old conventions (the sun revolves around the earth, the earth is flat, god created everything in seven days). Basically everything was tossed up into the air, and people were beginning to re-write the rules.

Throughout the whole book Hannah fights against the traditional conventions of women. She wears breeches, she is educated and she doesn’t want to marry. There are several men in her life that influence her. There is her father; the supportive role that wants to see her happy but also wants her safe. There is Lord Robert, who seduces her and wants to use her to do his bidding. But, at the same time he introduces her to a new world where power is yours for the taking if you’re willing to sell your morals for it. Finally, there is Daniel, her betrothed, who wants to love her, but on his terms, where he is the man, and she is the woman, and where she will honor and cherish him as her husband and head of the household.

Hannah’s struggle to find her own balance between independence and duty is mirrored in the opposing forces of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary is the traditional side. She longs for love and ends up dying from grief when it is not returned. She abandons who she is and what she wants for the love she needs. On the other hand, there is Elizabeth, who craves nothing but her own power. She uses every relationship to further her own gains. Her independence is all she has, and she twists everyone around her to keep it.

Hannah is suck in the middle of these two women. She loves and admires them both. Lord Robert once said that she is so desperate to love and be loved that she is on all sides at once. In a way I agree with him, she is on all sides at once, but because she does not know her own mind. For most of the book she is trying to figure out who she is, independent of her father, her betrothed, and her lord.

I think that Mary and Elizabeth essentially show two sides of Hannah’s personality. Mary is the honorable, steadfast side and Elizabeth the quick witted and independent side.

Lasting Relevance

The thing that really struck me about this book was the lasting relevance. It was set in the 1500s, but I think there is still a lot to be said about the way Hannah struggles to rectify wanting to be loved and cherished, but still live her own life. I’ve often thought that the ideals of men and women, and changing modern values, are so conflicting that they are basically incompatible.

Take men’s roles for example. Men are supposed to be in control and collected during every situation. They are supposed to not need directions, instinctively know how to build something, and handle times of crisis with assured self-confidence. Yet at the same time, modern vales say they are supposed to always respect their wives/girlfriend’s opinions. They are supposed to be dominate, but always adoring and respectful. When you add the fact that women are excepted to be emotional and easily frightened, this task basically becomes impossible. How can you except a man to be the head of his family but never talk down to those he’s supposed to control? How can you except a woman to take her place in modern society when she is expected to need a man’s support? All of these tasks are totally impossible. Which leads me to my next question. If the old ways don’t work, and the new ways aren’t yet accepted, then what are we supposed to do?

In this moment I totally, and completely, relate with Hannah. And Mary. And Elizabeth. Just as I’m sure the men out there can relate to Hannah’s father, and Daniel, and Lord Robert. I simultaneously want to feel taken care of, coveted and totally independent. This is not possible. I’m sure then many men want to know their families are safe, their masculinity is unquestioned, and their wives/love ones are happy. This is probably more possible, but still very hard.

We all struggle to balance society expectations with our own wants and needs. Enough said. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Woman on the Edge of Time - Marge Piercy

First off, let me apologize for how long this review took. School is starting to get busy again so I don’t have as much time for leisure reading as I would like.  But better late than never.

Woman on the Edge of Time is a work of speculative fiction by Marge Piercy. A friend recommended this book to me, and I’m unsure why it never crossed my path before. It’s unusual but has “classic” written all over it. Woman on the Edge of Time is unlike any utopian/dystopian novel I have ever read. It doesn’t fit the “formula” I have come to expect from this type of literature. Most speculative fiction seems to be told through the eyes of a middle aged white male who could be described as middle class. The book begins by the man realizing his enslavement, continues with him fighting against it, and ends with him finally being destroyed by society. A 37-year-old Puerto Rican woman who is imprisoned in a mental hospital narrates Woman on the Edge of Time.

In Woman on the Edge of Time two possible futures are presented, one dystopian the other utopian. I’m going to focus on the utopia because it represents an ideal, and therefore holds the brunt of the social commentary.

Piercy’s utopia is set far in the future. The idea is after grueling civil war humanity reemerged to create an egalitarian, cooperative, self-sustaining society. Everyone works for the common good, saving nothing for themselves. Everyone is simultaneously wealthy and poor. Luxury items are traded throughout the counties, where they can be “checked out” and enjoyed again and again. Everyone has everything they need and everyone works towards the common good.

While this society has surpassed the need for most forms of punishment, I found it interesting that the death penalty is still practiced. The first time someone commits a violent crime that person is rehabilitated and filtered back into society with no jail time or seclusion. The second time a person commits a violent crime they are put to death. To me it seems like this society is more than willing to help people who help themselves. If you are willing to do your share you are accepted.

The second concept that caught my attention was the diversification of the society. Genetic diversity is evenly distributed among all counties and people. People no longer give birth but are created from a common gene pool. However, the society still prides its self on cultural diversity, but that diversity isn’t classified by race, ethnicity or gender. Instead of a culture sharing a common race, different villages practice different customs. Yet each village has an even number of people with dark skin, light skin, and all colors in between.

Perhaps most interesting is the complete demolition of gender roles. Men and women are both called “mothers,” and raise children with three other “co-mothers.” Women no longer naturally lactate, but men and women can both breast-feed children after being given a shot. They have even gone so far as to do away with masculine and feminine pronouns and descriptions. Instead of saying “she likes to eat apples” I would say, “person likes to eat apples.” Instead of saying, “that is his dog” I would say, “that is per dog.” The idea is that total equality will never exist as long as there are distinct gender differences in society.

Unlike most speculative fiction Piercy’s utopia is one that I truly long for. She describes a culture that combines the technological advances of the present and future with the hard work and good values of the past. I would gladly give up all I own to share true and clean prosperity with everyone. Reading Woman on the Edge of Time made me wish our society could stop arguing about things that don’t matter and work towards creating something good for everyone. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Can't Get Enough?

Then follow Findsight! That's right, we've entered the 21st century and embraced social media.

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