“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood (1986)

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“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

Three dystopian books in a row are enough for anyone, it seems, especially when I was meant to be cutting back on the genre. Nonetheless, some books just have to be read. This one has been bouncing around my consciousness for the best part of a decade, dating back to when I was working at a bookshop and my colleague was a huge fan of it. Somehow in the interim I only managed to read one other Margaret Atwood book – Oryx & Crake – but have long had an affection for her and her ability. Anyway, I got here in the end.

In a not-too-distant future a deeply religious sect took over the running of the American government and thus was born the country of Gilead. Following on from a declining birthrate, and massive environmental damage, the population is in crisis and so people turn to religion to find the right way to repopulate. Fertile women are sent to live with married couples who cannot have their own children and must live a life of servitude with no freedoms or rights. Their only purpose is to have a baby.

Offred is one of these Handmaids, retrained and condemned to a life of purely functional sex with a man she hardly knows, her only chance at any sort of better life would be to get pregnant and help continue humanity. But Offred has not fully adjusted to this new world and still has hopes and dreams of an earlier time. No matter what the governments of the world do, you cannot suppress desire, and Offred soon finds her whole future resting in the hands of two men who could destroy her in a heartbeat, or provide some kind of salvation.

This is another of those novels that I thought I knew all about because of cultural osmosis. As it turned out, all that had really penetrated was the the vague setting, the repression and the outfits. I knew absolutely nothing of the plot and it was nothing quite like I had expected, although that’s not a complaint. I think the biggest shock was how far into this new world the novel was set. I had assumed that this was deep into a dystopia and focused on its dismantling when actually it turns out this new world order has only been in place for a matter of years, maybe seven at most, it’s not quite clear. This makes the whole thing much, much more terrifying, as the Handmaids – and indeed everyone else – all remember what life was like before and what freedoms they had. Freedom plays a huge part of the story’s themes, as any story about slavery does. The women, it is said, used to have “freedom to” and now they have “freedom from”. It’s such a small change, but an incredibly notable one. Consider the difference between women being free to date openly and with whomever they choose and being free from having to go on dates with unpleasant men and risk abuse or assault.

Many people may read the book and have thoughts along the lines of “Well, this couldn’t happen here”, yet the core of the book is based on the true events that befell Iran in the 1970s. Until then, it had been quite a modern, Westernised country, but then a very religious party got into power and women lost many of their rights and were told how to behave, right down to what clothes they should wear. I can’t profess to know very much about Iran, so I assume that Atwood is dialling everything up to extreme levels to make a point.

While the world and the unseen governmental body are scary, the real fear comes from those characters who have totally bought into the new setting. Like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series, true terror comes from those who are doing their job without questioning whether it is right or wrong to do it. Here, many of the women seem to have settled into the new regime and appear happy. I can’t understand these women, just as I can’t understand women who claim not to be feminists. Or any person of colour or homosexual that votes Conservative. There’s an irony present when Atwood discusses radical feminism and the women in her timeline who previously wanted a world for women – be careful what you wish for, indeed.

Surprisingly, the book also features a fascinating epilogue that takes the form of a lecture at some future point of the timeline in which Offred’s account has been discovered and studied as a historical text, which adds a whole new layer to the story and, in fact, can change how you view a few of the events. This is an excellent and unique take, but I won’t say anything else about its contents so as not to ruin some of the things it reveals.

Overall, I think the story is summed up by the line that Offred uses occasionally while narrating: “I don’t want to be telling this story”. In the current climate of #metoo and Weinstein culture, there are many stories that people don’t want to tell, and yet there are many that need to be told. There’s a firm difference between a want and a need, but one trumps the other – sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. It’s important to share our experiences and help other people going through the same things. This story is one that needed to be told, and as Atwood herself says, perhaps a world that can be described thoroughly like this can never come to fruition. I, like her, trust that it will not.

It’s a chilling but fascinating look at a world gone mad, showing that humans will always be our own worst enemy, and that it’s far easier to launch a despotic regime than it is to maintain it.

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“This Is Going To Hurt” by Adam Kay (2017)

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“The decision to work in medicine is basically a version of the email you get in early October asking you to choose your menu options for the work Christmas party.”

Touch wood, I’ve never had much to do with hospitals personally. My family, on the other hand, have all had more than enough experience on my behalf. My dad had two hernias before he was thirty, my mother has apparently had every possible organ removed at this point (sometimes twice), my grandparents are all held together by metal, and when she was twelve, my sister’s leg fell off. (Ask me about that last one sometime; I’m not really even exaggerating.)

Adam Kay is a comedy writer and singer now, but for several years he was a doctor. His parents appear not to have forgiven him for changing. A couple of years ago, while the UK was undergoing massive trauma relating to the treatment of junior doctors under the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (possibly the only man who is also the rhyming slang for what he is), Kay dug out all the diaries he kept during the six years he spent on the wards, mostly in his role in obstetrics and gynecology.

The entries are sporadic, so I can only assume he has picked the most interesting ones, but my god do they deliver. Firstly, the book is absolutely hilarious. I worked with the public long enough to know that they can say the most ridiculous things, but apparently putting them in hospital turns their lack of sense off completely. From the man who complained he’d never found a condom big enough to fit him (because it turned out he was trying to fit his testicles into them as well as his penis), to the woman who claimed her breast pump was bugged and someone was spying on her, there rarely seems to be a week that goes by without something hilarious happening. Many stories straddle the border between hilarious and horrifying, such as the young man who managed to deglove his penis (degloving is exactly what it sounds like) to the woman who returned from a Caribbean holiday, having had so much sex and catching such a virulent strain of gonorrhea that she was “producing purulent monsoons from both her Trinidad and her Tobago”. The humour is undoubtedly black, there’s no question, but Kay has such a mesmerising way with language that even the most disgusting aspects of the job are somehow still a delight to read.

More importantly, however, Kay doesn’t shy away from the absolute horrors of the job. He is speaking out on behalf of all junior doctors who simply don’t have the time to do so. He makes no bones about the fact that, as a doctor, you will never leave your shift on time, you will have to cancel dates, weddings and holidays with a moment’s notice, and you’ll hardly ever be thanked, and certainly not paid a decent and fair wage. He talks to giving medicines to anorexics who have eaten more than him in the last twenty-four hours, or trying to reduce the blood pressure of people he has higher blood pressure than. He emphasies the strain the role puts on his relationships, both romantic and platonic, and how tiresome it is to be asked by friends and family at every social occasion, “Can you just have a look at this rash?” And yet, even these appalling circumstances are still discussed with humour.

But, naturally, this is sometimes life and death we’re talking about, and Kay knows full well when to roll back the laughter and be serious. He deals with some situations that many of us would find utterly unthinkable, and the final entry in his diaries is one of the most heartbreaking, harrowing things I have ever read, hammering home how much we should respect and praise our medical men and women. Indeed, it is the events of the final entry that cause him to quit.

Don’t let that put you off, though. It is a very important book, an expose on what it’s really like at the medical front line. It’s not all tweed elbow patches and rounds of golf in the afternoon. It’s being splattered with blood and other fluids on a daily basis, performing complicated surgeries when you haven’t slept in thirty hours, removing Kinder Eggs from vaginas, trying not to confuse the Punjabi words for “hemophiliac” and “hermaphrodite”, and being eternally short-staffed. I’ve even more respect for the NHS staff now than I did before and it’s vital we protect them. They are superheroes.

Everyone should read this book.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Dead Writers In Rehab” by Paul Bassett Davies (2017)

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“I know why the caged bird sings. But that pigeon outside my room at four in the morning? What the fuck is his problem?”

It’s well documented that a lot of creative people seem to develop a fondness for, and perhaps a reliance on, drugs or alcohol. Indeed, I wrote an article for a spirits website about the favourite drinks of several authors. I suppose there’s no real way of knowing if the addictions caused the creativity, or the stress of creating let to the addiction. Who knows? All we do know is that Fitzgerald, Byron, Hemingway, Thompson and the rest all created great works while “under the influence”. Now imagine if you put all those people into the same building and watched the fireworks fly. That’s Dead Writers in Rehab.

Foster James is a literary star who seems to spend much of his time between writing novels in rehab. Once again, he wakes up to find himself in an institution with no memory of how he got there. The doctors are cagey and remote, and he can’t find the front door. It’s only when, during a group therapy session, he’s punched in the face by Ernest Hemingway that he realises that this isn’t a regular rehabilitation centre.

Now surrounded by literature’s greatest reprobates, James must try and come to terms with where he is. In between navigating the comedowns of William Burroughs, Colette and Hunter S. Thompson, he sleeps with Dorothy Parker, and they all learn that the centre is under threat as the two doctors assigned to their care are being torn apart by a failed love affair. Deciding that some things are bigger even than their egos, the writers pool their resources and set about bringing the doctors back together. But there’s something lurking on the edge of the grounds, seen from the corner of the eye, watching and waiting…

Despite not being massively well-versed in the classical canon, I know enough about the figures presented here to enjoy the story hugely. Foster James isn’t especially likeable, but then again very few of the characters are. Dorothy Parker is portrayed as willing to sleep with anyone who asks; Hemingway is violent and aggressive, and Hunter S. Thompson is a cheating sleazeball. They are also all shown at the age they were at the height of their prowess – Hemingway is in his fifties, representing the time he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, while Thompson is young, at his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas peak. It’s a great cast, even including Mary Seacole, who wrote some excellent memoirs about her time in the Crimea, warranting her a place among the patients. I longed for Agatha Christie to appear, of course, but she neither smoked nor drank, and would not be seen in a place like this.

The story is told via the recovery diaries of all the patients, mostly Foster himself, but with excepts from others who all write in the same style that we would expect of them. It’s Foster, though, who provided me with the lines that I particularly loved. When thinking of how his marriage went sour, he says poignantly:

It was like a relationship between pen pals in reverse: we began in the same place, knowing everything about each other, and by the end we were in different wolds with nothing in common but an imperfect grasp of the other’s language.

Or he can be funny, such as when discussing the meaning behind a famous M People song:

I’m all in favour of searching for the hero inside yourself. And if you can’t find him, try luring the bastard out with alcohol and the prospect of a fight; that usually does the trick.

There are a few great twists and surprises which I won’t mention here because the impact is better if you don’t know what’s coming, and while the novel does well for mostly leaving you wondering exactly what’s going on, the end was a little disappointing. It works, sure, but I don’t think we needed an explanation. Or if we did, we needed one different to the one we got.

A very smart, funny and unique book that anyone with even a passing interest in literature should gobble up with great haste.