Advent with Atwood

Atwood?

I acquired lots of Margaret Atwood books in preparation for Advent with Atwood last year, and I didn’t really love the books I read:

The Penelopiad – 8/10 (this was good)

The Edible Woman – 2/10 and DNF

The Blind Assassin – 6/10.

I have so many more on the shelves, but in my current spirit of GET RID OF ALL THE THINGS, I’m thinking of giving Atwood one more book to convince me and then get rid of the rest. So – what should I read first? I have Oryx and Crake, Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man and Alias Grace.

Atwood lovers out there, you get to pick one to convince me!

Advertisements
Advent with Atwood, Modern Masters

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood – 6/10

“Why stir everything up again after that many years, with all concerned tucked, like tired children, so neatly into their graves?”

margaret-atwood-blind-assassin

Iris Chase, heiress to the Chase family button-making business and married off to rival Richard Griffin, takes the opportunity towards the end of her life to revisit her story. Along the way we are treated to excerpts from the book penned by her prematurely deceased and decidedly odd sister Laura, newspaper clippings telling of the untimely demise of multiple family members, and Iris’ life as an elderly lady back in the town where she grew up.

If you’re interested in my thoughts as I went along, here are links to read-along parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The strands of the book varied greatly for me; I loved Iris’ story as an old lady, reminding me of Moon Tiger, one of my favourite book, as well as having strains of The Help. Gentle, smooth, comfort reading. The newspaper articles were intriguing, moved the plot along smartly and added a sense of location and community and times. Iris’ memories of childhood were the best part for me; Very Dead End Gene Pool with overtones of Blackberry Winter, but more positive. She tells this section very slowly, which strings out the reading pleasure and increases the bitter anticipation of the tragedy we already know will happen. In terms of the pulp novel/sci-fi subplot: I never connected with the people or really understood the relationship – there was a neat twist at the end but I could have lived without it; as for the dreadful fantasty writing…

It became more and more readable as it went along; possibly because there is less and less of the sci-fi story and more of the slow-motion train wreck of Iris Chase’s life. Interspersing it with her days as a pensioner is sort of reassuring because we know that she’s going to get through all the mildly unpleasant parts of her life intact, and we already know that Laura will drive off the bridge so now we’re sort of just waiting for it to happen.

Atwood writes fluently and elegantly but without much showiness; I only noted a few quotes:

“On the main street of Port Ticonderoga there were five churches and four banks, all made of stone, all chunky. Sometimes you had to read the names on them to tell the difference, although the banks lacked steeples.”

“Alone and therefore neglected, neglected and therefore unsuccessful. As if I’d been stood up, jilted; as if I had a broken heart. A group of English people in cream-coloured linen stared at me. It wasn’t a hostile stare; it was bland, remote, faintly curious. No one can stare like the English. I felt rumpled and grubby, and of minor interest.”

and my favourite, which tops this review.

It’s a sad novel; an inevitability of tragedy hangs over the protagonist. I did enjoy the description of life in between-war Canada, the life Iris had before and after marrying new money (it reminds me of something I’ve read recently, a woman who marries for money rather than love… ah – Wallis Simpson).

It turns very interesting from a semi-unreliable narrator point of view;  Iris is quite happily telling us all her marital woes while she fails to notice anything about Laura at all, and fails to protect her from the Richard and Winifred double act. Old Iris’ morbid (she even calls it lugubrious) discussion of her own death interspersed with her observations on her very unhappy marriage adds even more darkness to the domesticity. The marriage is quite oddly unhappy, actually – the dynamic of the traditional over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let go of her son is occupied by Winifred (“Freddie” – really?) the older sister, which struck me as very strange. Why would Richard choose a wife so far his junior if he enjoys the company of his older sister as a peer? Or is it just poor coincidence that the age gap was so large and really it’s just the Chase business that Richard wanted?

I was so pleased when the sci-fi stopped. I know it was intentionally awful, but still.

The twist in the The Blind Assassin affair reduced Laura as a character for me; she became a little girl once more. The slightly autistic, reserved but also impetuous trouble-maker of the family; no longer a sophisticated woman of intrigue. Iris grew in my eyes to become much stronger, with backbone (which is an odd reaction for me. I abhor infidelity in novels).

The ending felt very rushed. Suddenly Laura was dead, and Richard was dead, and Iris is clearly on the way out herself; either Atwood ran out of time (highly unlikely) or simply decided she was done with the part of the story she wanted to tell.

Thoughts? Thoughts on the book as a whole? on the read-along experience if you joined in? (as a straight-through sort of reader, read-alongs are a very different animal for me).

Additional information:

Advent with Atwood

The Blind Assassin Read-along: the end

Read-along Parts I-IV

Read-along Parts V-VIII

Read-along Parts IX-XIII

I had actually finished the book already when I wrote last week’s Readalong part 3 – the end was pretty fast.

It is pleasing that Iris gets her way, of sorts – away from the abusive husband, away from Winifred’s awful emotional bullying, back to Avilion, back to Reenie – but also with her daughter, which is bittersweet. We already know that will not go happily.

I had already twigged that it was Iris who had been having the affair with Alex, but I only realised that around part XI or XII, not early on; as it became unlikely that Laura had conducted the affair during her schooldays (in the affair story line, she catches taxis and wears fancy clothes – unlikely for Laura to achieve when playing truant) and she was committed to the mental health institute so soon after leaving school. Then it was quickly clear that Iris had written the book and given Laura’s name as the author because it was so easy then – she was already dead.

All of that reduced Laura as a character for me; she became a little girl once more. The slightly autistic, reserved but also impetuous trouble-maker of the family; no longer a sophisticated woman of intrigue. Iris grew in my eyes to become much stronger, with backbone (which is an odd reaction for me. I abhor infidelity in novels).

The ending felt very rushed. Suddenly Laura was dead, and Richard was dead, and Iris is clearly on the way out herself; either Atwood ran out of time (highly unlikely) or simply decided she was done with the part of the story she wanted to tell.

Thoughts? Thoughts on the book as a whole? on the read-along experience? (as a straight-through sort of reader, read-alongs are a very different animal for me)

Advent with Atwood, Modern Masters

The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood – 2/10 (DNF)

“I had returned from lunch and was licking and stamping envelopes for the coast-to-coast instant pudding-sauce study, behind schedule because someone in mimeo had run one of the question sheets backwards, when Mrs. Bogue came out of her cubicle.”

edible woman

From the blurb: What happens to someone who has been a willing member of consumer society when she suddenly finds herself identifying with the things consumed? … The witty and diverting story of a young woman whose sane, structured, consumer-oriented world suddenly slips strangely out of focus. As a result, Marian McAlpin finds herself unable to eat: first meat, then eggs, and finally even vegetables become abhorrent to her. In this tour de force, Margaret Atwood presents a striking condemnation of contemporary society and of the rampant consumerism that deprives people of both soul and sustenance.

Well, I don’t know at what point Marian starts identifying with the consumer products, but it hadn’t happened by page 100. Until then, she had just pottered along with her existence, her quite strange boyfriend, her fairly dead-end job, her bizarre housemate… so far, the setting has been confusing rather than dystopian. So I lost patience and gave up.

Additional information:

Advent with Atwood

The Blind Assassin Read-along: Parts IX-XII (sort of)

Read-along Parts I-IV

Read-along Parts V-VIII

Well, after last week was disproportionately long, this week was disproportionately short; I ended up finishing the book pretty quickly.

This segment was very interesting from a semi-unreliable narrator point of view;  Iris is quite happily telling us all her marital woes while she fails to notice anything about Laura at all, and fails to protect her from the Richard and Winifred double act. Old Iris’ morbid (she even calls it lugubrious) discussion of her own death interspersed with her observations on her very unhappy marriage adds even more darkness to the domesticity.

The marriage is quite oddly unhappy, actually – the dynamic of the traditional over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let go of her son is occupied by Winifred (“Freddie” – really?) the older sister, which struck me as very strange. Why would Richard choose a wife so far his junior if he enjoys the company of his older sister as a peer? Or is it just poor coincidence that the age gap was so large and really it’s just the Chase business that Richard wanted?

I was so pleased when the sci-fi stopped. I know it was intentionally awful, but still.

Thoughts?

Advent with Atwood

The Blind Assassin Read-along: Parts V-VIII (sort of)

Read-along Parts I-IV

How disproportionately sized are the parts of this book??? I’ve read it every spare moment I’ve had in the last week and I’m at page 404, about 2/3 of the way through the book, and I’m still only in part VII! So apologies for poor division of the parts, and for not doing my own required reading.

However.

It’s becoming more and more readable as it goes along; possibly because there is less and less of the sci-fi story and more of the slow-motion train wreck of Iris Chase’s life. Interspersing it with her days as a pensioner is sort of reassuring because we know that she’s going to get through all the mildly unpleasant parts of her life intact, and we already know that Laura will drive off the bridge so now we’re sort of just waiting for it to happen.

Atwood writes fluently and elegantly but without much showiness; so far I have only noted three quotes:

“On the main street of Port Ticonderoga there were five churches and four banks, all made of stone, all chunky. Sometimes you had to read the names on them to tell the difference, although the banks lacked steeples.”

“Alone and therefore neglected, neglected and therefore unsuccessful. As if I’d been stood up, jilted; as if I had a broken heart. A group of English people in cream-coloured linen stared at me. It wasn’t a hostile stare; it was bland, remote, faintly curious. No one can stare like the English. I felt rumpled and grubby, and of minor interest.”

“Why stir everything up again after that many years, with all concerned tucked, like tired children, so neatly into their graves?”

It’s a sad novel; an inevitability of tragedy hangs over the protagonist.

I am enjoying the description of life in between-war Canada, the life Iris had before and after marrying new money (it reminds me of something I’ve read recently, a woman who marries for money rather than love… ah – Wallis Simpson).

Onwards!

Advent with Atwood, Current Affairs

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood – 8/10

“Now that I am dead, I know everything.”

200px-ThePenelopiad

My first foray into Atwood (planned as part of Advent with Atwood) was the simplest of hers that I own – a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. Atwood imagines Penelope in the Underworld thousands of years later (in our modern day), telling the story of her life, with interjections from a Greek tragedy-style chorus. Penelope airs her thoughts on her cousin Helen, the gods’ fickle and mischievous interventions in human life, and sets us straight on some parts of her story. It’s not a long novel, with barely 200 small pages of largish print.

While there were certain aspects of the myth that I had forgotten (Odysseus’ long stay with Calypso being one of them) and others that I did not know as they were a little gruesome for the children’s book of Greek myths I read as a child (the hanging of the twelve young maids), the story was mostly familiar to me. Atwood throws in asides and remarks which reference other myths or characters from the myths, such as Clytemnestra, which make the reader quite smug with recognising them!

Atwood’s characterisation of both Penelope and Odysseus is consistent with my memory of the myth – both wily, fairly quiet, greatly in love and never forgetting a grudge. Penelope’s father is set up as a buffoon and Eurycleia as a meddling but loving old crony. A suspenseful ending was always going to be prohibited by the widespread knowledge of the story, but the dread and fear as the suitors eat up more and more of Penelope’s resources is real.

Somehow there’s not much to say about this. It’s faithful to the original although clever and witty in its own capacity; the characters started by Homer are consistently and congruously transferred, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I read the first hundred pages without interruption; it is perhaps the fact that I was returning to it rather than already being engrossed that made me feel the second half was weaker. In any case, the whole thing is a very quick read as it is both short and captivating.

Additional information: