Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

I recently finished reading a digital edition of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and it is such an evocative, compelling book I ran out and bought the paperback so I could feel the weight of these words in my hand. I want to be able to reread this book, underline sentences, write notes in the margins, and simply savor the feel of its physicality while it is held within my hand.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and it is Atwood’s third book. I first heard about it nearly twenty years ago and was intrigued, but for one reason or another, I never picked it up. I think it was because I thought it would be a dense and dry book. I had seen the movie, and though Natasha Richardson’s Offred was an intriguing interpretation of a woman struggling to survive a newly-formed dystopian world pulled out of a misogynist’s deranged dream, the film was a stylized Hollywood vision of what such a world would look like. In other words, the book is told from Offred’s point of view, and as an oppressed woman confined to a solitary and bonded existence, most of what we are told is through her interior monologue. The movie does not use voice-overs, so the viewer is left to guess what Offred is thinking, feeling, and learning. She becomes an enigmatic character who spends most of the movie looking sad and beautiful and lacks even the agency to think. Even though it is her story, she has maybe as many lines as the rest of the characters. I think this cinematic decision – no voice-overs – is where the movie lacks the fierceness and complexity of the anger and loss experienced by an intelligent woman who was once free to control her fate.

But, I did not know this. I just knew that movie felt inadequate. So, fast-forward twenty years to the present, I decided to read the book after I heard Atwood was coming to the Boston Book Festival. I’m glad I did.

It is the story of Offred – literary Of Fred, the commander she has been given to as handmaid because his wife – like many of the women – is infertile. Offred is the epitome of society’s greatest dilemma: what to do with their girls and women. Even today, all over the world, women are still held as society’s measure of honor and piety. In The Handmaid’s Tale, this perception has become one of Gilead’s (the newly formed country within northeast America) foundational tenants; women exist to bear children and serve men and their society. Rich women become wives; poor, infertile women become marthas or domestic workers, and all the other women who can bear children – and who can be controlled – become handmaids to childless families to provide them with babies.

The Handmaid’s Tale is masterfully written, as a master prose writer would be. It is eloquent and imaginative and politically astute. The issues and fears surrounding women’s rights that are brought to a living horror in this book are still evident 30 years its publication. ISIS, Boko Haram, the pro-choice-pro-life debate, all these groups and issues – and more – demonstrate how women are still reduced to their biological functions in hellish ways. As the gender that bears children, women have literally become the incubators for the men. The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly a feminist book, but it is also a tale of how a society crumbles when one-half of the population is oppressed and suppressed for the betterment of the other half, be it gender-based, wealth-based, or racial-based.

Highly recommend!

Masala Chai (Spiced Tea) Made Simple

March 20, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you just need a hot cup of tea.

I love both coffee and tea. Coffee in the morning when I wake up, for that jolt of caffeine, strong taste and earthy aroma, and tea in the afternoon and evening, for its gentle toughness and memories of rainy days, fireplaces, and family gatherings.

I am very particular about my coffees and teas. I like dark roast, freshly ground coffee with skim milk and sugar. I like my herbal to be unfussy and straightforward: green tea, chamomile, jasmine, and oolong for their antioxidents, taste, aftertaste, and aroma. And for the gentle caffine jolt, the chais of Pakistan, black tea leaves boiled in water water and milk. Lately I’ve taken to adding spices to enhance the fragrance and exoticize the taste. We love this masala tea, or chai, which is the urdu and hindi word for tea, and have a cup every evening while we sit together and read, talk, or watch TV. The only caveat is that I drink this tea in company.

There are no hard and fast rules for this tea. It’s is like a family recipe, shared through the generations, but adjusted according to the maker’s preference. The most common spices used are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, white or black peppercorns, fennel and star anise. They can be used whole, ground into a powder or a mixture of both consistencies. The combinations are endless!  The following is a version I make. Do note that this tea is made sweetened, but you can adjust the amount of sugar within the recipe after some trial and error.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

4 whole cardamom pods
2 whole cloves
2 whole star anise seeds (I ran out of my anise seeds, so I’ve been making this tea with just cardamom and cloves. Its still pretty good!)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 teabags of unflavored black tea (or 4 teaspoons of loose tea leaves)
1 ½ cups of 1% or whole milk
4 cups of water

Pour 4 cups of water into a small sauce pan and add the cardamom pods, cloves, anise seeds and tea bags (or tea leaves). Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat very, very low, and simmer gently for 1 or 2 minutes, until it is fragrant. Add the milk and sugar. Stir and bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat. Pour through a strainer and serve.

Enjoy!

How I Write

February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

How I write

One of the questions that I’ve been asked from interviewers, teachers, classmates, and even friends, is my writing process: how do I come with an idea and develop it into a polished, written, document.

I usually find these questions more akin to rhetoric than methodology. After all, every writer is different and every writing process – outside of physically sitting in front of a computer screen / typewriter / note book and typing / writing words into sentences, into paragraphs, into pages until the end – is unique. I mean, how do you walk?

But the question is persistent and over the years I’ve learned that is worthy of inquiry. People have an insatiable curiosity for how things work, and understanding the creative process is our holy grail. After all, who wouldn’t want to know what Da Vinci saw when he painted Mona Lisa’s elusive smile, or how Hugo knew what he knew about human nature when he captured it so eloquently in Les Misérables, or even when Rumi looked into himself and seemed to understand the powerful lure of spirituality that he then explored in his Divan and Masnavi . Or even Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and Charles Dickens, documented in this delicious blog post by brainpickings!

I am by no means a creative writer (the drafts of various first pages can attest to that), but I am an eloquent writer who loves words. I am able to explain a process, conceptualize an idea, and explore a feeling. I am able to engage with my reader through the written word, which is both a remarkable and a humbling sensation. And in thinking about this process and reading writers’ responses to it here, here, and here, for example, I thought I’d document how I wrote my marketing pieces and university papers. It will not offer anything new, but I hope that it will encourage you in whatever way you feel you need encouragement, and help me grow as a writer.

Ideation. Many times I’m handed a topic and asked to run with it. That is one problem solved. But when you have to come up with your own ideas, it can get messy. Not because there aren’t ideas – ideas are everywhere! Read articles, books, blog posts, cartoons; observe the people around you; look at the places you are in at that moment, look at paintings, movies, objects, TED Talks; listen to music, to the way people speak, to their accents and their words; and Google stuff! Go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole! – There are plenty of ways to generate ideas, but it is choosing the one idea to work on that I think is the challenge. I try to keep a notebook handy (in my purse, on my desk, and on my nightstand) and every time I note something I try to add 2 to 5 points about what I thought about the topic. If I can’t think of it straight away, that’s fine too. If it was important to me, it will ferment in my brain. But it’s the ones that I write notes on that I work on first.

Why. Sometimes you need to think about why you are writing a certain piece? Is it a marketing content piece for a company; a story, essay or an academic article you want published; a technical paper that includes procedural details and a step-by-step process; a review; or even a personal journal entry for marketing purposes. Inherent in the “why” of writing is the “who” you’re writing to (and for), as well as “what” you could write about and how it will be written. If you’re writing a piece of marketing content, it could be a white paper or infographic written for a business audience; a journal article for an academic publication must adhere to a set of stylistic guidelines; and a review has its own set of conventions , such as Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism. Knowing your topic and your target audience (business, acedemics, general public) will help strengthen your paper.

Research your subject. Know what you are writing about. There are so many, many, easily available resources that it is no longer an excuse to be uninformed about your topic. Read about what other people are saying, question their ideas (a catch-phrase from a professor: question everything!), form your opinions, and then back them up.

Outline the paper. Think of the outline as a blueprint. I like to outline my paper, especially the longer pieces, because it helps me focus and remember all the points I want to make and where I think they belong. Most of the time the final work is not what I started with, but that’s the joy of writing. You learn new things as you go along. But the outline makes sure I will capture all of my preliminary ideas and whether they belong in my paper.

Pre-writing. All my professors at UMass Boston – the Medievalist, the Modernist, the Victorian, the Romantic, the Miltonian, the poet, the theorist – gave all their students the same advice: write first and the paper will develop in your exploration. That was key: you may have an idea, but you really don’t know where it will end up unless you write it down and explore that idea. When I wrote The Guide to the Top 16 Sales Enablement Solutions for the Enterprise, we knew we wanted define and differentiate ourselves in the sales enablement space, but we didn’t know what that definition was until I started researching and writing what I understood, and realized that it was a holistic endeavor that involved the entire company. Our marketing VP’s original 3 line definition finally became a short, single sentence. Consider this as draft one.

Writing that first working draft. If pre-writing creates the first draft, then writing that first working draft is actually writing the paper into unified whole. The introduction should be fleshed out, the main body and its sub-headings should begin to be defined, and there should be a working conclusion.

Proofread and re-draft. This is exactly what it says. Your first draft is not polished, refined, or complete. It is however, mostly there. This is what you read and decide: have I answered my questions; does everything flow in a logical manner; what can I elaborate; what can I remove; does it make sense; is it interesting; is it clear; etc. This is –hopefully – the working copy you can begin to polish

Edit, proofread, edit, proofread, edit proofread. Again, read what you write and edit the words, sentences, paragraphs, and essay. Shorten you sentences and paragraphs and use simple words. If you can shorten and simplify without jeopardizing the integrity of your article then please do so. If you can give it to someone to edit, please do so. I have an editor friend who will make sure the word, the sentence, and the paragraph are important to the document as a whole. I have another friend who reads the entire document and tells you if the document makes sense or not. My husband has an amazing eye for grammar and spelling! My point is any new set of eyes will help you refine your work just a little more. You do need to set a limit for yourself; if I had my way, I’d be editing and refining my papers to the nth degree because you can always make it better. My usual is 3 rounds and then I have to stop.

Other tips. These are things I keep in mind or do to help me with my writing:

Have a good copy of the dictionary. The United States uses the Merriam-Webster, but my personal preference is for the Oxford Dictionary. Have both.

Have a good copy of a style guide. I have both the MLA and the Chicago Style handy, and I am also familiar with APA.

Again, shorten and simplify where and when you can. Establish your Hemmingway, then aim for your Ondaatje, Atwood, and/or Roy.

Become an editor. I edit books on Booktrope and it has been an amazing learning experience. When you help others construct a sentence that is both eloquent and needful, then you are in a better position to look at your own work and make it better.

Make notes. Jot ideas down. Buy a good-looking, portable notebook and a pen you would snatch out of your best-friend’s hand. You want to enjoy the act of writing as much as process of writing.

Write. Write words you like; their meanings; put them sentences; write a small paragraph of a conversation with your 4-year old; write a haiku that makes absolutely no sense. Just write. Because the more you write, the less daunting it becomes. Not easier, just usually less daunting. That white page becomes a space you fill with words you love rather than a blank space.

(Disclaimer: I have written a shorter version of this article that I have posted on my marketing blog here.)

Still

February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

One day I ran home;
My heart was racing, hurting!
She lay still; eyes closed.

Short Tales: Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie

January 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie

Some years ago I wrote a blog post on The Loose Cannons about reading aloud children’s books to the little ones. I had listed some tips or “rules” about making night-time reading an enjoyable experience for both the reader and child, and used the children’s book Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie as an example to explain my suggestions. Written and illustrated by the amazing Joel Stewart, this book is an underrated, well-done, timeless and deceptively simple story about the intricacies of friendship, the magic of imagination, and the awesomeness of adventures. This intrepid partnership joins the realms of Calvin and Hobbes and Charlie Brown and Snoopy because of its simple story-telling, imaginative escapades and good ‘ol fashioned fun.

Stewart is a well-known, creative and whimsical children’s book illustrator, but he is also a brilliant story-teller. Nothing exemplifies this that self-explanatory the title of the book Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie. Why wouldn’t it lure you to read. I saw the book at a sale rack at a Shaws Supermarket (a well known supermarket famous is Massachusetts). The artful synopsis on the back : a big, blue beast-like giant eyeing a little boy on a scooter, pointedly telling him “I’m bored. I think I’ll eat you.”

The Big Blue Beastie is in a perpetual state of boredom and constantly threatening to “eat” our intrepid young hero. Each time, Dexter counters with “Hold on, I have a much better idea” and comes up with various schemes that give him a few moments more (or many moons in storyland time). Thus we have the two frenemies scooting around on scooters, running a successful flower delivery business (complete with shares and the stock market), becoming famed private detectives called “Bexley & Beastie” (solving the case of the “The Rubber Glove Affair” and capturing arch nemesis Professor Horten Zoar, “although he later escaped”), creating the largest beast-iest yogurt sundae, and (finally) sharing lollipops.

A true trifecta of friendship, imagination and adventures!

Happy New Year! Resolutions for 2016

January 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

calvin and hobbes lets go exploring

 

Happy New Year!

2015 was an awful year for blogging – I did none! There were a myriad of reasons: earning my MA in English Literature, looking for work, a couple of content writing gigs, working, laziness, life. We also lose some dear family members and are still recovering from their loss. But 2016 is a new year, and that means newness, freshness, change, onwards and upwards. Etc. To that end, I would like to make some resolutions that will – I hope – provide enrichment, growth, and inner peace.

  • Write more. Write a couple of paragraphs at least two or three times a week. These will mostly be diary entries, so I don’t know how many of them will make it to the blog, but I feel I need to start doing this consistently for my peace of mind. the few times I recorded my feelings were a cathartic experience, and I was able to work through some of my issues and worries. This should be kept up.
  • Blog. I’d like some of my diary entries to become blog posts, but as of right now I am keeping them as separate goals. I’d like to do post at least once or twice a week; I need to do more reviews, especially of books, but movies and TV shows should make an appearance.
  • Study for and take the GRE and GRE English Literature Subject Test. Twenty minutes everyday!
  • Blog about the books I read for my literature subject test.
  • Get my sons diaries and get them to write/draw/scribble in it every weekend.
  • Drive to new places; I’d like us to explore our New England environment more and find new hiking trails.
  • Practice salah consistently.
  • Start exercising again.
  • Stain our kitchen cabinets.
  • Start my capsule wardrobe.
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter.

Where there is a will there is a way. Wish me luck!

DIY Baby Banner

August 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

A couple of years ago a group of us threw a baby shower for a very dear friend of ours. It was her first baby, one of the cutest little boys ever! I was in charge of decor and decided that since I had always wanted do some king of DIY “stuff”, this was the perfect occasion to begin. After surfing the ubiquitous ‘net for a bunch of ideas, I was able to narrow my project down to two items that I felt I could do without feeling overwhelmed/cutting my finger/booby-trapping the party: a “sweet baby” banner and some giant pom-poms.

We settled on a color scheme (yellow, brown, and white) and I set to work corralling the raw materials. As I was also continuously writing papers for university, I decided to purchase everything I could online – after all, purchases are now at the tips of your fingers and a click of a button. Hence Amazon, the online marketplace where you can and match items.

First up, the banner. I decided I wanted to go the traditional route and make long triangles. I found a lovely set of card-stock papers in my color scheme. Exactly! (Seriously, how often does that happen?) They were from a small online retailer called Becky Higgins who has wonderful selection of digital scrap-book templates (that you can use on Shutterfly) and an assortment of scrap-book kits and individual items. Check them out – the designs are so whimsical they make you smile. The one I chose (and bought from Amazon) was called Baby Edition. Here is a picture of set:

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I also purchased a thin yellow grosgrain ribbon to tie up the banner triangles.

Here are the tasks that I had to do: the card-stock papers were 12×12 inches, and I needed to (a) cut them down to size, (b) add holes or slots to tie up the triangle pieces, and most importantly (c) have a letter stamped or printed onto the sheet. I couldn’t find individual letter stamps large enough and nice enough in time for my project, so I decided to print the letters.

1. Using my trusty blade, I trimmed the papers down to measure 8 in x 12 in. That way, they would fit in my HP InkJet printer and I could print a letter a page. Remember that 8 x 12 is a custom paper size in MS Word and for the printer.

2. I created a Banner Template of 2 triangles per sheet, measuring 5 inches across x 12 inches down.

3. I found a free font I loved called Ravie from fontpalace.com. I typed a letter per triangle to spell “Sweet Baby.” Since I wanted to alternate the sheets, I needed to sequence my letters so they printed on the correct sheet/triangle. That means that “S” and “W” and “E” (etc.) do not appear next to each other. (It took a lot of trial and error to measure the exact center, but it came out quite well).

4. Once I figured out my sequence, I printed the triangles and used my cutting knife to cut up the sheets. I punched holes in the top 2 corners, and threaded my lovely yellow grosgrain ribbon. Here is how I did the threading.

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And here is the final product. How does it look? I messed up the triangles with the “happy face” icon to separate the two word, so I was unable to include it in the final product. But no one was jarred by the grammar, so I guess it was all good.

IMG_2508

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