Thursday, November 19, 2015

Maggie and Me... That's Atwood, not Thatcher

On Monday night, I set off with my friend Susan to see, and hear, my old pal Margaret Atwood. Sponsored by the Ottawa Writer's Festival, Atwood was speaking at the Southminster United Church, a beautiful old building that's part of the historical and cultural fabric of Old Ottawa South. Kind of a fitting venue for someone who has been such a big part of Canadian literature for so long. You could say that, like this old church, Atwood has become part of the fabric of Canadian culture. 

Southminster United Church during Ottawa Writers Festival
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I'm a big fan of Atwood's work. A big fan. And of her in general, I guess you could say. She makes me proud to be a Canadian, if that doesn't sound too fawning. 


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But, as Elizabeth Bennet (kind of) said of Mr. Darcy... I didn't always love her as much as I love her now. Atwood's early novels that I read in the seventies and eighties, The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, Bodily Harm, left me a bit cold. But I absolutely adored Cat's Eye when it came out in 1988, and cherish my signed copy. Ditto Alias Grace, The Robber Bride, and Blind Assassin. I think that Blind Assassin is a masterpiece. It's my favourite Atwood work. 


        

The Blind Assassin is not universally well loved. But I was captivated by the story of sisters Iris and Laura, as told by a cranky, and now impoverished, eighty-two year old Iris. I love the way Atwood weaves the past and present together, with flashbacks, and newspaper articles, as well as the story within a story, the pulp- fiction tale of "The Blind Assassin" as told to Laura by her lover. One review I read called the characters "bloodless." Remorseless, scarred by tragedy and abandonment, coerced into 'behaving' by a rigid and oppressive society obsessed with respectability... certainly. But not bloodless. Iris, an old lady of apparent ruthlessness and lack of emotion, retelling her life story, actually reminds me of that other iconic Canadian fictional character, created by that other Margaret. Namely Margaret Laurence's character of Hagar in The Stone Angel. If you're not familiar with Canadian fiction and some of its earlier stars, you should read Margaret Laurence. Stone Angel is her best known novel, but I prefer A Jest of God. I seriously love that book. 

The last time I heard Margaret Atwood speak was in 2013, when she was touring her recently published book  MaddAddam. She was brilliant. Ascerbic, funny, telling stories in her deadpan way, poking fun at how old she was, and how young the interviewer was. Afterwards when my friend Nancy and I were standing in the very long line to get our books signed, and the host strolled by, I quipped, "That must have been stressful!" Atwood is a notoriously "difficult" interview. He laughed ruefully, "I had a whole list of questions, and I only got to ask two." And then we both laughed. Atwood had taken over the show and had gone on and on from one fascinating story to another. Thank God. The host's questions had actually been pretty bad. 

While I was researching this post I watched a charming interview on CBC with George Stroumbouloupoulos following the publication of MaddAddam. George is lovely, and it's clear that Atwood thinks so too. Have a look.



I'm just now getting around to reading MaddAddam, which as you probably know is the third book in her post-apocalyptic trilogy. Oryx and Crake came out in 2003 and The Year of the Flood in 2009. I loved Oryx and Crake, couldn't put it down, in fact. Have a look at this insightful analysis of the novel on the blog Fiction Unbound. Oryx and Crake depicts a not too distant future that we can all imagine. Atwood merely exaggerates the narcissism, corporate greed, and "unfettered consumerist debauchery" we see today, and combines it with "endemic social and economic inequality" and "catastrophic climate change" to depict a world that is willfully blind to its own impending apocalypse. Definitely not light reading. Oryx and Crake both begins and ends with the apocalypse. The Year of the Flood covers the same ground from a different perspective, that of the outsiders. Characters in this second novel do not live in the gated and heavily secured world of the wealthy, all-powerful corporations, but on the fringes of civilization, in the violent, poverty-ridden Pleeblands. In this world if you're not part of the corporate aristocracy, you're a "pleeb."

        

MaddAddam picks up where the first two books end, uniting the survivors of the apocalypse, a mix of characters from both of the first two novels. As one reviewer says, this third book deals with the question of "now what?" Emma Brockes wrote a wonderful article for the Guardian in which she and Atwood discuss MaddAddam, Atwood's career, and her views on everything from women writers to the life of bees. You can read the article here. At one point in her interview, Brockes says the author replies to a question in that "Atwoodian tone of steely levity." I love that description. 

I haven't finished MaddAddam yet. I'm struggling with it, reading in short spurts. Don't get me wrong; it's a wonderful book. Brilliant. Funny, in a darkly ironic way. It's just that it is so dark. And I think that I'm not entirely in the mood for dark these days. 

This is a shot of my friend Nancy and me, with our buddy Margaret, in 2013. She signed our books, and then her assistant took our picture with Nancy's i-phone. I was planning all manner of intelligent things to say, but it was getting late. We'd been standing in line for an hour. Margaret looked exhausted. In the end we just giggled and said thank-you. 

Nancy and Maggie (Margaret Atwood) and me...October 2013

On Monday night I took along my copy of Atwood's newest book The Heart Goes Last, but by the end of the evening I couldn't face another hour long wait in line. So I came away with it unsigned. Ah well. That's okay. I'd enjoyed Atwood's conversation and her stories. As I always do. 

Atwood is such a wonderful writer. I love that she's so smart, and so wide-reaching in her interests, and her causes. And so open to new ideas and experiences, even those that her publishers tell her are "beneath her." But she does them anyway. Like writing about zombies. Or hair. 

If you haven't heard, or read, about #hairgate ... you must. Atwood's article "Hair Is in the Election Season Air" for the National Post was a tongue-in-cheek jab at Stephen Harper and the Conservative party's attack-ads which commented on Justin Trudeau's hair. For those of you who don't follow Canadian politics, the ads painted Trudeau as a light-weight and then ended with the comment, "Nice hair. though." Atwood wrote the article, then the Post pulled the article, and then all hell broke loose on Twitter. You can read about all the kerfuffle here. The whole thing was such a hoot.

Like George Stroumbouloupoulos said, Margaret Atwood "makes this country a better and more interesting place." You got that right George. 

Yep, Maggie and me... we go way back. Although, I guess I shouldn't be so disrespectful as to call a literary icon 'Maggie.' Or Peggy, or Mags. I should just stick to Margaret. Much more dignified. Especially since she doesn't know me from Adam. Or even from MaddAddam. Ha! Sorry... but I've been waiting days to make that terrible pun. 


P.S. I haven't even started reading Atwood's latest book The Heart Goes Last. I'll no doubt get back to you when I've finished it.



Are you an Atwood fan? 



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24 comments:

  1. I haven't read her recent books and you make me think I need to dive back in. Thank you.

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    1. I'd highly recommend Oryx and Crake. Then you can decide to continue onto the other two books.

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  2. Fun article, Sue - a nice teaser, too, for people who haven't read Atwood before.

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    1. Thanks Nancy. Missed seeing you when I was at McCrae on Remembrance Day.

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  3. Entertaining post! I spend too much time on the Internet and not enough reading books and literature. I am currently reading another Canadian, Steven Galloway but he hasn't written as much as Atwood. When I finish The Confabulist I may just have to go back and read/re-read Margaret's books. It must be 20 years or so!

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    1. I must look up Steven Galloway...haven't heard of him.

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  4. Yes! I am a big fan, though I haven't read much fiction recently. I think the first Atwood I read was in about 1969, and was circulated amongst women's groups as a xerox. Not good for royalties, but I don't know that it was available in book form. Not sure of the title ....

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  5. Oh how wonderful! I'm a huge fan of Atwood's including her earlier works, probably because I identified with the characters' struggles of body image and self-expression. I think "Handmaid's Tale" is brilliant, (and for those who thought it was too polemic, google "Planned Parenthood" and see exactly how conservative religious beliefs are still seeking ownership and control over women's bodies). I started "Blind Assassin" a few years ago but couldn't get into it. I will give it another go.

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    1. Polemic maybe... as is the MaddAddam trilogy... but scarily close to reality. Good call, Sue, on the Planned Parenthood thing... which is scary on its own.

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    2. I just found an awesome article written by Atwood herself about the origins of Handmaids' Tale. In one comment Atwood says that she did not use any idea, event, or practice in the novel that had not already been carried out by one society or another. So the plot is not invented, but more cherry-picked from history... so even more scary!

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/20/handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood

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    3. The Handmaid's Tale was also my first Atwood novel and it really impressed me at the time. I remember being a young woman and my surprise at how rapidly things changed for her main character, Offred, who had once had a "normal" life. Coming to the US as a refugee child I was aware of how rapidly society can change but for some reason this book really hit home for me.

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  6. I'm having trouble commenting Sue - there seems to be a black hole swallowing my words ! Couldn't get through last time . I am still reading & trying to post . Haven't read Margaret Atwood but think I should . Here we go .......fingers crossed ....
    Wendy in York

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    1. Sorry about that Wendy. I don't know what is wrong. I tried looking at "things" when another reader had trouble... but couldn't figure out what was happening. Darn Google? Darn Blogger? Or something else??? I have had similar trouble commenting on other blogs ...they just disappear. Please don't give up:)

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  7. I haven't read anything by Margaret Attwood but really enjoyed her article in the Huffington Post!.. is there a couple of her books you'd recommend that I start with ?
    Thanks!
    Rosie

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    1. Depends what you like; she has written in a fairly wide range of genres. Cat's Eye was the book that really turned me on to Atwood. It's about an artist who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her works and revisits her childhood haunts, that have "haunted" her. The flashbacks to her childhood deal with girls growing up in the fifties and sixties, bullying, fitting in etc etc. If you like feminist literature with a wry sense of humour you might also like Edible Woman. I didn't like it when I read in in my teens, but really changed my opinion when I reread it in my thirties. And Alias Grace is historical fiction based on the real life of a nineteenth century female murderer from Kingston Ontario. I assigned it to a group of girls in my senior AP English class one year. They were to read it on their own, and discuss various topics as a group. They said they couldn't stop discussing! I thought that was pretty awesome. It's a great book too. Okay... I'll stop now. Let me know how you get on with your reading!

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    2. Thanks Sue ...that's really helpful. You write great book reviews! They all sound good especially Cats Eye. I m not sure how much reading I ll get done in the run up to Christmas but I ll certainly put a couple onto my Kindle ... gives me the opportunity to read whilst having a coffee break from Christmas shopping! :) I ll let you know when I've read them .... Thanks again for introducing me to Authors I wouldn't otherwise know much about!
      Rosie

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  8. Cats Eye is the only Atwood novel I've read. Your reviews have made me feel I must read more. Not sure why I haven't up to now. What an interesting woman. Thanks for more reading inspiration Iris

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    1. You might like Blind Assassin, Iris... I sure did.

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  9. I bought Oryx and Crake after reading the post on Atwood and could not put it down! I promptly ordered the other two in the trilogy. Thanks for reminding me how much I love Atwood's books!

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    1. So glad you liked Oryx and Crake. I'll be interested to hear what you think of the other two.

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  10. ....and to add to her allure, Ms. Atwood knits!

    "The Edible Woman", and "Surfacing" were part of my CanLit college curriculum back in the '70's, but The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assasin remain favourites. (Part of the fun is following rumors about *who* inspired The Robber Bride. CanLit intrigue!)

    Her later, more dystopian fiction hasn't appealed to me as much. Given your positive review though, I might go back and read Oryx and Crake. Hmmm...

    Beverley

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    1. Does she? Me too. More reasons to love Margaret. My Can Lit courses in the seventies and early eighties dealt most with much earlier fiction. I would have loved to read and discuss Atwood's books as a student.

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  11. Hearts were set aflutter on Ravelry (the on-line knitting hub) when she joined the site a few years back while working on this: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/margaret-atwood-on-knitting-a-great-auk-in-the-arctic-2373978.html

    As young women, we were delighted when Atwood's novels were added to our courses. It was like reading popular fiction! And certainly a departure from the Sinclair Ross / Morely Callaghan novels. We felt very modern. ; )

    Beverley (MsGidgetty on Ravelry. Smile)

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.