Margaret Atwood

A Few Of My Favorite Things

People often ask me about my favorite books. As a reader, I could (and often do) talk for quite a while about what favorite means and why it qualifies a thing as important. When I was younger, stumbling upon an author that forced me to read differently, and then as a result think differently, was a memorable and revelatory experience. I think of the books that have influenced my reading habits in some way as important.

I found refuge in diatribes of feminism during adolescence, reading essays over and over that spoke to me, tearing them out of books. I especially loved the essay “Blood Love“, from Christina Doza, in the book Listen Up. I tore it out of the book and folded it up and still have it today, nested in a box with old letters and pictures and other such memories.

i was amelia earhartOne of the first books I stumbled upon at the Sandy, Utah library which made me think of writing as something I totally understood, something quietly settled through its words despite the tragedy in its story, was the tiny novel I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, published in 1996. A surreal memoir of Earheart’s fated last flight, it begins: “The sky is flesh. The great blue belly arches up above the water and bends down behind the line of the horizon. It’s a sight that has exhausted its magnificence for me over the years, but now I seem to be seeing it for the first time.” Reading the Goodreads reviews now, I can see the overwriting they describe. But then, all I saw was a quiet unreality so clearly created I could melt into, losing myself completely to the story of a desperate Amelia and her alcoholic navigator.

bloggerrebeccaIn middle school, the first book I read for a class and truly loved (maybe even truly read all the way through) was Rebecca by Daphne DuMarier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

four books squareNow, I have a handful of books that I look to as favorites, most by authors with many books I adore. Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled is haunting and distant, like trying to read a book as it bends down a dark hallway away from you. The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert tells what appears to be the saddest, simplest story, with ends that begin to unravel as you flip the pages. Walbert writes the style of story I enjoy reading the most, of a seemingly innocent narrator relaying an enchanting past, details blurring and fading as the tale continues. Margaret Atwood is a master of this style as well, with both The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake illustrating the dangers and oddities of memory, as narrators enchant themselves more than their readers while relaying their histories. A.M. Homes‘s This Book Will Save Your Life puts the brakes on life’s cruise control as its main character begins to connect with the people he sees every day. In Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, the wreckage of the tech age is a teenage sex offender.

by bloodFinally, Ellen Ullman‘s By Blood is all the right things–slightly insane and drawing the reader into that insanity, bursting with what seems like too much story in incredibly contrived situations that just might be believable, exploring worlds within worlds of heartbreak and loss. Any book exploring San Francisco’s darker moods is a book after my own heart. This one does so beautifully, as its narrator rides the empty N-Judah line through the fog and towards the wind and chill of Ocean Beach.

But for me, there’s always one book that is undoubtedly my favorite, which stands above the rest. What is it, you ask? More on that this weekend…

(Oh)dysseus!

Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793.

Homer’s Odyssey translated by Alexander Pope, with engravings by Thomas Piroli from the compositions of John Flaxman, sculptor. Rome, 1793. via

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer

At an old, slow, snail’s pace, I am reading xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Although I am tempted to say Bernheimer is a leader of the modern fairy tale and myth renaissance, I think this would be misleading, as fairy tales and myths resonate throughout our lives like wallpaper lining the rooms of all the stories we create and live through today. No renaissance is needed for something that never left us in the first place. Reading xo Orpheus is like reading myths with 3D glasses on, taking a fresh look at something already intimate and close. Like the best books, it gives me cultural pause and reminds me how often I forget the limits assumed within traditional storytelling.

No book of myths retold would be complete without maybe the most timeless and revisited of all myths, that of The Odyssey. Not only do several stories take on Odysseus, but one also gives voice to his dog, the faithful Argos. xo Orpheus‘s exploration of The Odyssey made me think of the other stellar reinterpretations of that myth:

    • The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. It may be a requirement, if you are a young woman alive today, to be in love with everything Margaret Atwood. One more reason for my devout membership to the church of Atwood is her beautiful parallel novel to The Odyssey, which gives Penelope her own voice. Penelope tells us of Odysseus’s drinking problem, his tendency to tell tall tales about his adventures, and her own limited opportunities in life (“And so I was handed over to Odysseus, like a package of meat. A package of meat in a wrapping of gold.”)  Atwood’s version of the story reminds us how much of Penelope is left out of Homer’s tale.
The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad,
by Margaret Atwood

    • The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich. My expectations for The Suitors weren’t very high, but I fell in love with it right away. It reminded me of both Chris Adrian’s The Great Night and, oddly enough, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books. Ehrenreich doesn’t spend time explaining logistics, instead he draws up ruthless and modern images of Odysseus (aptly renamed Payne) and Penelope (Penny) which make the story all the more relatable, stark, and scary. Ehrenreich is an uninhibited writer, and the book blasts passed its deeply meditative bits (“The wisdom of the streets holds here too: everybody’s got a hustle, even fog. And love’s a hustle like any other grift.”) not pausing for contemplation before Penny throws a tantrum or Payne wants to fight something. The power lies in the story’s inability to pause and question the insanity of the world Ehrenreich writes it into, part timeless utopia and part hipster wasteland.
The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich

The Suitors,
by Ben Ehrenreich

Finally, The Boston Review posted a beautiful poem by Dan Chelotti on their website yesterday, “Odysseus Amongst the Swine Glances Towards Ithaca”, in celebration of April as National Poetry Month. Happy Reading!

Review – MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

maddaddam  margaretatwood

“Why is war so much like a practical joke? she thinks.  Hiding behind bushes, leaping out, with not much difference between Boo! and Bang! except the blood.  The loser falls over with a scream, followed with a foolish expression, mouth agape, eyes akimbo.  Those old biblical kings, setting their feet on conquered necks, stringing up rival kings on trees, rejoicing in piles of heads — there was an element of childish glee in all of that.”  — MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

I remember my discovery of Oryx and Crake, the first book in the MadAddam trilogy.  I was down with the stomach flu and had recently bought the novel at a used book store, as I was a huge fan of Margaret Atwood‘s other works (The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale).  I wasn’t sure what to expect with Oryx and Crake, but I was blown away once I started reading.  Despite my aching stomach, I read the book all the way through without stopping, moving from chair to floor and back again trying to ease my aches from the flu.  I think Oryx and Crake is easily one of the best apocalyptic novels of our time, and I recently listed it in my list of the best apocalyptic audiobooks.

I bought The Year of the Flood, the second book in the trilogy, shortly after its release.  The Year of the Flood takes place in the same dystopian period as Oryx and Crake, but can stand alone as its own novel.  Margaret Atwood has created a new world in these stories, and the possibilities of her imagination are endless – both books are funny, sad, and brutal.

And now comes MaddAddam, the third (and final? let’s hope not!) release in what is being called a trilogy.   If you haven’t read the first two books and are considering checking out MaddAddam, I’d say to read the other two first.  There is much more to appreciate in this novel with an understanding of the story thus far.  That being said, I haven’t read the first two books in quite a while and the brief summary at the beginning of the new book helped me recall where each of the stories ended.

As with the sequel to Justin Cronin’s hit apocalyptic book The Passage, MaddAddam has a lot to live up to.  I could barely wait to see which direction Atwood would choose to take things.

And go off in a direction she did – MaddAddam reads like the Waiting for Godot of the trilogy, all wit and wait.  This story begins where the other two books ended – with Jimmy and the Crakers (characters from Oyrx and Crake) encountering Ren, Toby, and Amanda (protagonists of The Year of the Flood).  Those hoping for the quick pace of the first two books may be disappointed – much time is spent on debating  the next move, on waiting for others to come back from various missions, and on reminiscing about times before the fall of man.  At one point Toby wonders what she is supposed to do, where to go from here, and we are all right there with her. There is a feel here of a post-apocalyptic version of David Eggers’ The Hologram for the King.  Where The Hologram for the King leaves us waiting in the harsh landscape of a foreign desert nation, questioning the purpose and productivity of American business, MaddAddam leaves us waiting in a harsh dystopian future, questioning our own potential demise and what is left to do for those of us who survive.

As heavy as this sounds, MaddAddam is a book full of jokes and jesters.  The Crakers (leaf eating, genetically modified semi-humans created to flourish in the new world) act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on all they don’t understand from before their creation, inadvertently asking us to evaluate our most basic assumptions.  As she illustrated in The Penelopiad, a beautiful book of Penelope’s thoughts on The Odyssey, Atwood is a master of myth.  MaddAddam could be a study in the creation of myths (as could much science fiction), as the Crakers’ mythology continues to evolve on what they hear from humans.

Aside from The Crakers, who steal the show in this novel, the other star of the story is Zeb.  Zeb is a unique character for Atwood to take on, as many of her books feature strong female characters, and readers may be predictably dismayed that he is the focus rather than the more gentle Adam or the matriarch of the group Toby.  Zeb is masculine to the max – swearing and crude, he picks on his scrawny brother, he kills without regrets, he woos the women around him.  In the same pre-apocalyptic flashback style used in the first two books, we get to learn of Zeb’s history and his role in the disasters which struck the human race.  Atwood writes at one point “The old symbol systems follow us around,” and they surely do here.  Toby’s struggle with loving an alpha-male like Zeb could stand just as well in a tale from the frontier West or current suburban America.

As always, Atwood’s writing is stellar.  Her descriptions are short knife slices, her dialogue is smart and funny.  A woman in the group  “looks flinty-eyed, like a wood carving of herself.  She’d make a good executioner…”  As with Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, part of the joy here is reading Atwood’s vivid creation of a future gone mad – nefarious corporations, company backed oil-worshipping churches (“Church of PetrOleum, affiliated with the somewhat more mainstream Petrobaptists”), porn devolved into simulated or real violence, genetically modified animals grown for human profit (Mo’hairs – “Hair Today, Mo’hair Tomorrow went the add when the creatures had first been launched.”)  “Funny old thing, the human race,” Zeb says at one point in the story – and Atwood’s future shows the human race to be a funny thing indeed.

Atwood’s dystopian world has now spanned over a 10 year time period (Oryx and Crake was published in 2003), and I have to wonder if MaddAddam will really be the last addition to the series.  By the end of MaddAddam it is clear there is so much more to be explored – especially regarding Blackbeard, the charming Craker who becomes Toby’s shadow early in the story.  MaddAddam feels more to me like an interlude than a final chapter.  More is revealed here, and enemies become allies;  but this world is enchanting, gruesome, and hard to let go.

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood on Amazon

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