Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood’

Margaret Atwood reading month provided me with the perfect excuse to read Hag-seed which I have had languishing on my tbr quite some time. In this novel Margaret Atwood has combined her consummate storytelling with a phenomenal understanding of Shakespeare. Hag-seed is a brilliant re-telling of The Tempest. Initially, that might have put me off a little, I love Shakespeare, though The Tempest isn’t a play I know well at all. I definitely know it a lot better now – Atwood is so clever – that I don’t think it really matters if you know the original well or not.

I have been impressed with Margaret Atwood’s fictional achievements before – but this novel is so clever, I can’t help but love the way her mind works. In the story of a man’s obsession to stage The Tempest and take revenge on the people who ruined him, she in fact tells an updated story of The Tempest. The old story within a story thing, that both Shakespeare and Atwood have employed before. With practised skill Atwood weaves a story of greed, revenge, grief and magic. In Hag-seed she is at her most compelling.

Felix Phillips is in his element as director of the Makeshiweg festival, where he is known for his vibrant, forward looking productions. Numb with grief over the recent death of his little daughter Miranda, Felix hadn’t noticed the gradually increasing ambition of his right hand man, who is always sure to be in the right place at the right time. Suddenly, Felix is out, his enemies have manoeuvred their way into position, and on the eve of Felix’s production of The Tempest, they strike. Felix finds himself escorted to his car by security, a pile of packed cardboard boxes waiting for him. Everything he was sure of is shaken, and as his fury mixes with his grief, Felix knows that one day he will get his revenge.

“What to do with such a sorrow? It was like an enormous black cloud boiling up over the horizon. No: it was like a blizzard. No: it was like nothing he could put into language. He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at the very least enclose it.”

Retiring to an isolated hovel he comes across by chance, Felix changes his name and deliberately buries himself away from anyone who knew him during his success at the festival. Living with ghost of his dead daughter – who Felix can conjure up at will, and who continues to grow as she would have done in life – years pass.

After several years, Felix takes a job teaching a theatre course at a nearby prison. The course runs for a few months each year, and each year Felix does a different Shakespeare play. The prisoners know him as Mr Duke, and he insists on his own particular rules, never having a moments trouble with any of the prisoners. His course has proved very successful, it’s seen as quite a privilege by the prisoners, with some, serving longer sentences, coming back in subsequent years to take part again. Felix’s next course at the prison is about to start in early January, when he learns of the perfect opportunity to take revenge on the men who betrayed him.

“What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye”

His enemies have now stepped into cushy ministerial jobs, decision makers, who hold the purse strings, and they will be paying a visit to the very prison where Felix holds his Shakespeare theatre course.

Felix immediately decides that his course that year will be about The Tempest. The course culminates in a performance that is videoed and shown to the rest of the prison via cctv. The inmates taking ‘Mr Duke’s’ course hang on his every word – he really pushes them intellectually; he doesn’t talk down to them and he promises them cigarettes.

“Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else—Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

Felix has the perfect group of people around him to help put his plan into action. Twelve years have passed since the treachery at the Makeshiweg festival, but never has Felix’s desire for revenge diminished. So, with the help of Leggs, PPod, Bent Pencil and others, Felix, becoming more Prospero like every moment finally gets to stage the production of The Tempest he has dreamed of – with a twist.

The wraith like ghostly figure of Miranda, now fifteen years old, is never far away – only it’s just Felix who can see her, so he enlists the help of an actress he worked with in his previous life. Leaving nothing to chance, Felix spends weeks planning and resourcing his great production. The stage is set…

I really enjoyed this novel, so fantastically readable, and so blinklin’ clever I just wanted to cheer.

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Although I have pre-ordered new releases a few times before it’s not something I do very often – and never have I felt swept along by the hype of new book like I was this one. If I am honest, I had never thought that The Handmaid’s Tale needed a sequel – but once the fact of it was a known thing – I wanted to read it. So, yes, the hype has been insane, but the book is honestly excellent, it’s an absolute triumph on many levels. One of the ideas I love most in this novel is how the very act of storytelling can be an act of rebellion – even if, maybe especially if, you can’t be sure your words will ever find a reader.

“Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.”

I love Margaret Atwood – I find her so wise and inspiring, and I really love The Handmaid’s Tale which I re-read with my book group a couple of years ago. Re-reading Handmaid is a good idea I think if you’re embarking on The Testaments many moons after first visiting Gilead.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this review – so many people are reviewing it at the moment, and I have been avoiding blogger reviews until I had written my own. I am going to attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible, certainly there will be no major plot spoilers, though if you’re going to be reading this next week proceed with caution. (There are THT spoilers ahead though).

“The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.”

It is fairly well known I think that The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale as such. Instead it’s more of a re-examination of the Gilead we think we know, from Atwood’s 1985 classic. Set around fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers us another view of the society of Gilead. We all know how that earlier book ended with Offred heading off who knows where in the back of a van. Many of us wanted to know more – wondered what became of Offred, the symposium at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves us with the idea that at some point Gilead ended – but how? Offred’s position in that earlier novel was such that her view of Gilead was necessarily narrow – there was just so much she couldn’t know or wasn’t allowed to know; her perception of Gilead’s society is therefore skewed. What The Testaments does brilliantly is to open up Gilead to the reader in way Offred’s account wasn’t able to. Atwood is brilliant at creating an altered world, a society with different rules and traditions.  

The Testaments is told in three different voices – the testaments of the title. The first testament we discover within a page or two is being related by Aunt Lydia – who readers will remember from the earlier novel – a character who has become a huge part of the TV spin off series.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.”

The other two testaments are told by young women – looking back at their adolescence/teenage years, as they came of age and began to make discoveries about the world they were living in. One of these young women has grown up in Gilead, the other has grown up across the boarder in Canada, where she has witnessed protests against Gilead, and the visits of the Pearl Girls – sort of missionaries from Gilead. The stories that Atwood weaves through these three testimonies are so compelling, full of twists and surprises, as ever her storytelling is perfect – and she writes so well too. There is such wisdom in this novel, such understanding of how people act – there is also so many wonderful, quotable nuggets of excellence.

“You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

When we consider totalitarian regimes – and the world has seen its fair share of them – what we often ask ourselves is how are ordinary people persuaded to collaborate with what they must know to be evil? This question is explored in the story of Aunt Lydia particularly, and it is a fascinating element, it’s a chilling idea, that intelligent people, previously politically unengaged can be so easily coerced.

“You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself, so face the facts. There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

The Testaments is a wonderful achievement, for an author to return to her fictional world after so long, and to do it so convincingly is extraordinary.

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A shorter review today.

You may remember that when I was writing my review recently of The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, I discovered I had made a terrible mistake in my A Century of Books. 1993 turned out to be my troublesome year – though after an initial panic I discovered I had had another 1993 title after all. Well this little volume ended up being my quick replacement 1993 read.

A Virago Keepsake is a book that someone on Twitter sent me (and I am ashamed to say I can’t remember who it was), it is a rather lovely little blast from the past. A volume that was obviously once given away free (with a newspaper or a magazine I assume) it was produced to celebrate Virago’s twentieth anniversary. With an introduction by Harriet Spicer it is not at all clear who compiled or edited this collection.

Twenty pieces by or about Virago writers – many of them reminiscences of the beginnings of Virago, and the start of careers.

Probably because of the date of this little volume, and the time these pieces were written – many of these pieces discuss the women’s movement of the 1970s – a key time for many of the women writing in this volume.

“That was in the mid-seventies, when Virago occupied a single room in a crumbling building on one of the grubbier streets in Soho. You walked up several flights of none-too-clean stairs to get to it, past an establishment which was – I think – a hairdresser’s, but which sticks in my mind as a massage parlour. Certainly there were a lot of men in raincoats hanging around. I prepared ripostes, in case of sudden stairway unbuttonings – ‘Listen pal, where I come from we put toothpicks through those and serve them on soda crackers’ – but I never had to use them. Maybe my own raincoat was daunting; or maybe the wind of Virago’s name had already gone round it.”
(Margaret Atwood – Dump Bins and Shelf Strips

It was a time when so many strong women’s voices began to be heard. I couldn’t help but reflect on the movements we have seen gather momentum more recently across social media platforms – it seems that while the slogans on the placards change – the fight goes on – but it began I think, with many of these women, and others like them – whose names are less well known.

“…in the last twenty years scores of those lost women writers of the past have come back from obscurity to be rediscovered in their green Virago dresses by a new generation.”
(Elaine Showalter – writing a literature of their own)

Virago did so much for women’s writing, bringing back those voices that had fallen silent as fashions changed – and at the same time gave us new ones.

The first few pieces in this volume – were a treat, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Nina Bawden, A S Byatt on Willa Cather, got this volume off to a blisteringly good start. To be honest other pieces were rather less memorable. Though I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Kathleen Dayus’s reminiscence on how she came to be published by Virago. Grace Nichols expresses herself best through verse – and the extracts she inserts here are wonderful. Deborah Tannen; not a writer I knew before, discusses what she calls The Real Hilary Factor, the Hilary in question, Hilary Clinton, and her (at the time) much discussed impact on the American Presidential election. I would love to know Tannen’s thoughts now – two years after Hilary Clinton ran for president herself.

A collection of some really interesting essays, and very much of its time I think – which in itself is fascinating. Rather glad that I had to read this – it might have languished even longer had I not ferreted it out.

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life before an

I was delighted that one of the Margaret Atwood novels I had tbr fitted snugly into one of the last years of my A Century of Books and I could join in with Margaret Atwood reading month, hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink.

Life Before Man is a fairly early Atwood novel, one I had missed in the late eighties when I first began reading her novels. In this novel, Atwood’s characters are not always very likeable – but I really don’t think that matters. The novel’s three main characters are deftly explored, people trapped in damaging relationships, in thrall to their various love affairs. I found Life Before Man immensely readable and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The stories of these three people are told in alternate chapters with events told from each character’s perspective.

Elizabeth is a woman struggling with grief – her lover Chris has recently taken his own life, and she can barely function for the silent rage inside her. Unhappily married to Nate, the two have lived separate lives from within the same house for a while. Her two little girls are oblivious to their mother’s turmoil, though even they sense something is wrong. They plan joyfully for Halloween, lighting jack-o-lanterns while it is still light. Elizabeth lies on her bed listening from a faraway place inside her.

“It used to touch her, that excitement, that fierce joy, the planning that would go on for weeks behind the closed door of their room. It used to twist something in her, some key. This year they are remote from her. The soundless glass panel of the hospital nursery where she would stand in her housecoat for each of them in turn, watching the pink mouths open and close, the faces contort.
She can see them, they can see her. They know something is wrong. Their politeness, their evasion, is chilling because it’s so perfectly done.”

Elizabeth’s husband Nate is a gentle, weak soul, but his relationship with his wife is in the past. Once Nate was a lawyer, but he gave that up to make bespoke wooden rocking horses in his basement. Nate knew all about Chris, everyone at the Museum where Elizabeth and Chris worked knew about them, there were no secrets, no sneaking about, just a strange chilly kind of politeness. All the time Elizabeth was seeing Chris, Nate had been seeing Martha. Nate and Elizabeth had an agreed timetable as to who was out when, and Elizabeth would meet up with Martha for a drink from time to time, to gauge how things stood. With Chris dead, Nate feels there is something of an imbalance – and with his relationship with Martha pretty much having run its course he ends his affair. Now though, he has his eye on a replacement.

Lesje is the innocent,and the young woman who Nate is interested in, though she seems far fonder of dinosaurs than men. Lesje, a young woman of Jewish/Ukrainian parentage works in the museum’s palaeontology department, her mind is never far from her favourite subject. However, soon enough the two are entering into an affair, despite the fact that Lesje is already living with William.

“Copulating with William was not unpleasant she thinks, but neither was it memorable. It was like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese. Emulsified.”

life before man]Lesje soon realises that in taking on Nate – she is also taking on his daughters, and Elizabeth is always in the background – or on the phone, not to mention around at work. Nate is finding things financially very tight – and his wooden horses are no longer selling very well. Everything becomes rather fraught.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel – aside from the wonderful writing – is the story of Elizabeth growing up, told in flashback. Elizabeth and her sister were taken into their Auntie Muriel’s house as young girls – the reasons become sadly apparent as the novel progresses. Auntie Muriel’s house was a joyless place of rules and embroidery.

“It’s the third of January. Elizabeth is sitting on the slippery rose-colored chesterfield in her Auntie Muriel’s parlor, which is truly a parlor and not a living room. It’s a parlor because of the spider and the fly. It isn’t a living room, because Auntie Muriel cannot be said to live.

Auntie Muriel is both the spider and the fly, the sucker-out of life juice and the empty husk. Once she was just the spider and Uncle Teddy was the fly, but ever since Uncle Teddy’s death Auntie Muriel has taken over both roles.”

Elizabeth’s life with Auntie Muriel and the fate suffered by her sister has blighted her life – and Elizabeth has never really recovered from it or forgiven her Aunt. This aspect of Elizabeth’s story is much easier to sympathise with, and in Auntie Muriel – who we mainly she through the filter of Elizabeth’s memory – Atwood has created a marvellously horrible character.

Hanging over the heads of all these people is the ghost of Elizabeth’s dead lover. Atwood’s characters are wonderfully realistic and she has a great ear for dialogue. As much as the story of these people has tragic undertones, Life Before Man is also frequently funny.

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I have been following Margaret Atwood reading month with great pleasure – and I hope to be able to post my review of the brilliant Life Before Man by the end of next week. I haven’t had time to join in the postings up to now but have seen people posting about their collection of Margaret Atwood covers and their favourite Margaret Atwood books. So, here’s my twopenneth.

I have probably began reading Margaret Atwood when I was nineteen or twenty – and I began with these volumes from Virago – which have survived three house moves and various book culls (the most serious of which was because I lived in a tiny studio flat). I did have a copy of Cat’s Eye in that edition too – but couldn’t find it just now – I’m sure it’s there somewhere, just too many books to look through quickly. They are definitely my favourite Atwood covers – and the Atwood books I have owned the longest. They are begging to be re-read – with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale – I re-read that not too long ago.

When I went looking through my shelves, to find books to photograph, I was surprised to see my copies of The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace are no longer there – so I must have passed them on – rather regretting that now. I haven’t kept The Penelopiad or The Heart Goes Last either – though it is probably fair to say I was a bit underwhelmed by those. My copies of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood – which I only read recently – are out on loan to my sister. I love those editions with the images of peculiar animals. Two books I had held off reading for years – and so of course completely loved. I really must get a copy of Maddaddam. The only other Atwood I currently have tbr is Hag-seed.


I don’t have so many Margaret Atwood short story collections, yet. I am happy to say I have more of those to collect and read too, not sure why it took me so long to discover what a fantastic short fiction writer Atwood is. Of course, I read Bluebeard’s Egg back in the day – a collection I have forgotten all about and read at a time when I was less keen on short stories than I am now.


Margaret Atwood book covers are always striking, you have noticed that I have two copies of The Handmaid’s Tale – well of course I do!

My Favourite Margaret Atwood books?

That’s rather difficult because some of those I read years ago I can’t remember well enough to be sure, however I do remember really enjoying Lady Oracle.

The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely my all time favourite – I loved it both times I read it, I know I will read it again, and I was blown away by both series of the TV adaptation. The story is so important, a novel  that seems to speak to subsequent generations in a way that feels like a warning.

“We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy?”

More warnings abound in the  Maddaddam trilogy of which I have only read the first two so far.

The Year of the Flood is another recent favourite – I hadn’t realised how much I would love these novels, and the third instalment is high on my wishlist.

I think I have learned to love short stories more and more as I get older, I particularly appreciate linked short stories.

The Stone Mattress collection of stories blew me away, I found all the stories compelling and memorable. The first three stories, that are loosely but cleverly connected were utterly captivating, bringing to life a small group of characters in just a few pages.

Alias Grace (read pre-blog) – despite my not still having a copy, is a book which has stayed with me for years. I enjoyed the TV adaptation on Netflix – and it really made me want to re-read it. Of course, the problem is I have so many books that re-reading is a huge luxury I don’t always feel I can afford.

Have you been joining in with #MARM?

I finished reading Life Before Man on Wednesday night, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A fairly unlikable bunch of characters, in thrall to their various love affairs. Unlikable characters don’t usually worry me, and these are fully fascinating. Beautifully written, and sharply observed. Full review to come.

Would love to know what your favourite Margaret Atwood book is.

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“What am I living for and what am I dying for are the same question.”

As I succumbed to some kind of (now possibly viral) chesty bug, the second book of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy kept me wonderful company. A slightly chunkier book than I often read (this isn’t altogether intentional I just seem drawn to shorter books) The Year of the Flood was such a wonderfully intelligent, imaginative read, that it really did become hard to put down.

The narrative of this book runs parallel to that of Oryx and Crake – in year twenty-five, a catastrophic event has effectively wiped out the vast majority of the population on earth. Strange, savage hybrid creatures wander the desolate landscape as an unforgiving sun beats down on the few fragile human beings left, and vultures hover overhead. Who, if anyone, is left alive?

“Why can’t I believe? she asked the darkness.
Behind her eyelids she saw an animal. It was golden colour, with gentle green eyes and canine teeth, and curly wool instead of fur. It opened its mouth, but it did not speak. Instead, it yawned.
It gazed at her. She gazed at it. “You are the effect of a carefully calibrated blend of plant toxins,” she told it.
Then she fell asleep.”

As with Oryx and Crake, the narrative moves back and forth between the last decade or so before year twenty-five, to the days and weeks following the man-made plague that wiped out most of the human population. In Oryx and Crake, we met Snowman (aka Jimmy), and the strange children of Crake – but by the end of that book we know that Snowman isn’t alone after all.

Surviving the “waterless flood” are two women Toby and Ren. Against the odds the two women survive separately, each isolated and alone. Ren living, at first, in an airtight room at the upmarket sex club where she had worked as a dancer, using the media devices she has access to, to search for news of her friend Amanda. Toby, at the Spa where she had been hiding out. Now Toby; some years older than Ren, watches from the roof top garden that was her home for several years.

In the years before, Toby had found refuge with the God’s Gardeners, a religious cult, who refuse to eat flesh and utilise the products of the natural world in their clothing, medicines and food. Toby has spent years hiding from a violent, stalker, and with the gardeners she finds a way of life she only partly believes in, but for some years brings her peace. Toby had become a bee keeper, maker of potions and in time became a key member of the community. Now she scans the horizon from the ruined rooftop garden, clutching a rifle she has dug up from her parents’ old home.

“Yet each flower, each twig, each pebble, shines as though illuminated from within, as once before, on her first day in the Garden. It’s the stress, it’s the adrenaline, it’s a chemical effect: she knows this well enough. But why is it built in? she thinks. Why are we designed to see the world as supremely beautiful just as we’re about to be snuffed? Do rabbits feel the same as the fox teeth bite down on their necks? Is it mercy?”

In the past Ren had also lived with the gardeners, as a child she had been taken there when her mother left her father and took up with Zeb another key figure in the gardeners. Ren’s mother eventually takes them back to one of the privileged compounds, a sanitised world of scientific breakthroughs and man-made everything. Here, as a teenager Ren meets Jimmy, who breaks her heart, bitter and hurt, rejected by her selfish mother, Ren stumbles inexorably toward the sex industry.

Ren is brought up against other ragged survivors, many of whom are horribly dangerous, and one of whom is Toby’s old nemesis. Ren is tough, but she needs help. Ren and Toby come together, they will need all their strength and ingenuity to survive the hostile environment that they are now living in.

I must admit that Toby’s story was my favourite of the two, the life she lived with the gardeners, one I almost started to envy. She learns the way of plants and how to talk to bees – she’s a survivor and someone I would want on my side.

I don’t really want to say too much more about the plot of this one, but oh my what an imagination. Nothing is so far fetched that it isn’t immediately credible, although let’s hope not prophetic. Though Margaret Atwood has a talent I think for seeing where it is that humanity is going wrong and calling us out on it. She does so brilliantly here, and I can’t wait for book three.

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dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.


I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.


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wilderness tips

Having so loved reading the brilliant Oryx and Crake at the start of the month for the Librarything Virago’s group author of the month – I was keen to read more Atwood. I chose this story collection, which somehow, I hadn’t even heard of until quite recently.

Wilderness Tips contains ten superbly crafted stories, in which life doesn’t always turn out quite how it was expected to, consequences must be faced, time flies as it does in life. All of this within the confines of ordinary life. I’m not going to describe in detail every story – as ten is rather a lot to write about – so I shall instead attempt to give a flavour of the collection.

The stories – some of which span years, even decades – focus mainly on the lives of women, and the men who inhabit their lives. Toronto, its environs and the Canadian woods are the settings for these stories – some taking place in slightly more rural settings – two of the stories taking in the world of the summer camp. I have always known, that had I been born in Canada or the US I would have simply despised the summer camp. Yet just as the world of the hotel or the boarding school is deeply fascinating and wreathed in stories as they are places that pull unrelated people together – so is the North American summer camp similarly fascinating. I wonder if that explains the fact that these two stories, True Trash and Death by Landscape were among my favourites.

True Trash is the story which opens the collection, and a group of young boys with some binoculars spy on a group of waitresses as they sunbathe. The waitresses – subject to much speculation and fantasy – are only three or four years older than the boys – lie in the sun and read romance stories in trashy magazines. Here Atwood recreates the atmosphere of the camp beautifully, the sexual tensions between the boys and these older girls, that heady, complicated time when one is somehow stranded between childhood and adulthood. The story of the consequences of that summer continue many years later – but I naturally can’t say too much about that.

“Between two oval hills of pink granite there’s a small crescent of beach. The boys, wearing their bathing suits (as they never do on canoe trips but only around the camp where they might be seen by girls), are doing their laundry, standing up to their knees and swabbing their wet T-shirts and underpants with yellow bars of Sunlight soap. This only happens when they run out of clothes, or when the stench of dirty socks in the cabin becomes too overpowering. Darce, the counsellor is supervising, stretched out on a rock, taking the sun on his already tanned torso and smoking a fag. It’s forbidden to smoke in front of the campers but he knows this bunch won’t tell. To be on the safe side he’s furtive it, holding the cigarette down close to the rock and sneaking quick puffs.”

(True Trash)

The second camp story – actually the fifth story in, Death by Landscape – in which a woman recalls a mysterious and shocking incident at her summer camp years before. Atwood’s description of a traditional old camp, little changed since the start of the century, and the remote, mountainous countryside surrounding it is perfect. In her apartment, where she now lives alone, Lois has a collection of landscape paintings, which take her back to the world of that camp.

“She bought them because she wanted them. She wanted something that was in them. Although she could not have said at the time what it was. It was not peace: she does not find them peaceful in the least. Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it’s as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.”

(Death by Landscape)

Several of the women in these stories are professional women – journalists or lawyers -making their way in the world of men. In Hairball, for instance, Kat, a magazine editor, undergoes surgery to remove a growth – there’s a horrifying description of it – which I shall spare you. Kat takes her tumour home in a bottle of formaldehyde. Kat’s married lover; Gerald – takes the opportunity of her absence from work to ease her out – a betrayal which takes her breath away. Kat takes a terrible, stomach churning revenge. It is a quite brilliant story, slightly disturbing, but with a superb sting in the tail. In Uncles; Susanna, a journalist has her success ruined by the poisonous jealously of a male colleague – the uncles of the title the men whose praise and approval she worked so hard to achieve when she was a girl. The uncles had protected and provided for Susanna and her mother, and Susana can’t help but search for uncle like figures as she starts out in her career. In Weight, another professional woman – a lawyer sleeps around, seeming always to be making omelettes for other women’s husbands. She remembers Molly – who she was at college with – they shared similar dreams of fighting feminism and achieving professional greatness. Now our narrator, engineers a meeting with a rich man – she is only interested in his money – though it isn’t for herself she wants it – but for a shelter for battered women – to be called Molly’s Place.

In the title story Wilderness Tips, we witness the strange dynamic between three sisters. George, once a Hungarian refugee – has been successful in Canada and married one of the sisters. George has cheated on his wife with one of her sisters – and is now dancing around the third – quite successful in this too it seems. George’s past very different to his present – which he can’t help but recall as his wife Prue shows of the effect of her red bandannas.

“‘It’s the forties look,” she says to George, hand on her hip, doing a pirouette. “Rosie the Riveter. From the war. Remember her?”
George, whose name is not really George, does not remember. He spent the forties rooting through garbage bag heaps and begging, and doing other things unsuitable for a child. He has a dim memory of some film star posed on a calendar tattering on a latrine wall. Maybe this is the one Prue means. He remembers for an instant his intense resentment of the bright, ignorant smile, the well-fed body. A couple of buddies had helped him take her apart with the rusty blade from a kitchen knife they’d found somewhere in the rubble. He does not consider telling any of this to Prue.”

(wilderness Tips)

Wilderness Tips is a wonderful collection which beautifully explores aspects of Canadian life, between the sixties and the nineties.


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I was rather delighted when the librarything virago group, elected to read Margaret Atwood books during November. I recently read Stone Mattress a collection of superb stories that really put me in the mood for more Atwood.

I chose to read Oryx & Crake a work of dystopian, speculative fiction which imagines a world as it could so easily be given the right conditions. It is both a brilliant and terrifying vision, and possibly one that only works when it comes from the razor like imagination of Margaret Atwood.

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

We are introduced to Snowman; a post-apocalyptic character living in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, alone in a strangely altered world. Nearby are a band of human-like creatures – who Snowman calls Crakes, – the children of Crake, who have developed their own rites and rituals and bring Snowman a fish once a week. The Crakers view Snowman as a teacher – looking to him for guidance and explanation for the things they don’t understand. Snowman is nearing starvation – the supplies he had previously provided himself with are running out – and he desperately needs to replenish them.

“Sometimes in the dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! He feels better afterwards.”

Through a series of flashbacks, we see Snowman’s past, when he was Jimmy, and before the population had been seemingly wiped out. Jimmy had grown up in the privileged world of the scientific communities living inside enormous compounds. Outside these compounds – are the pleeblands – a chaotic, unregulated world where poverty and viruses run rife. When he is in high school Jimmy meets Glenn – and the two become good friends, playing online games and watching dodgy underground videos. Glenn’s online persona is Crake – a name which sticks, and it is while the boys are watching online videos that they first see the arresting face of Oryx in a piece of child pornography. We see clearly that Crake is ambitious, and he has some big ideas. Jimmy is still coping with the desertion of his mother, who left the compounds for the pleeblands – ensuring that Jimmy is always in the sights of the authorities, who call him in for questioning every now and then.

“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”

Ruminating on the past, his mother, his friendship with Crake– Snowman – as he is in the present – decides to take a perilous trip to the abandoned compound where he once lived in great comfort. He recalls the stories Oryx finally told him about her mysterious life which so disturbed him, including stories of sex trafficking. Wrapped in his old sheet to protect him from the cruelty of the sun – Snowman sets out for the compound, sheltering from the sun during the worst part of the day. The compound is not a nice place anymore – most of the supplies are long used up anyway – and retrieving whatever might be left means running a gauntlet of ferocious hybrid animals that now run wild, and picking his way through the remains of people who died when the plague-like catastrophe struck. The memory of Crake and all he said, has stayed with Snowman – as he recalls how Crake ended up working in one of the top compounds, involved in some pretty cutting-edge stuff. While Jimmy went to an inferior compound. Until, Crake stepped in, taking his old friend to work with him on a very special programme.

“We should think only beautiful things, as much as we can. There is so much beautiful in the world if you look around. You are only looking at the dirt under your feet, Jimmy. It’s not good for you.”

In flashback we learn eventually how and why the world has changed so frighteningly – though I think most readers will have worked at least part of that out by the time they get there. We learn why Snowman is haunted by the memory and the voice of Oryx, feeling his most terrible solitude as he struggles to survive. As the novel ends we discover that Snowman might not be quite so alone after all. This of course sets things up nicely for the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy – Year of the Flood – in which events run parallel to Oryx & Crake.

Oryx and Crake is a stunning novel – thought provoking and utterly compelling and I pretty much gulped it down as fast as I could.


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stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.


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