Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress: Nine TalesStone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine short stories retains her incredible ability with the written language. The writing cannot be faulted, but the collection is awash in quiet tragedy. Furthermore, when the first several stories are not stand-alone but overlapping narratives, but all the following are utterly separate the book feels… well, like half a book pasted together with a bunch of random stories.

I hesitate to say I didn’t like Stone Mattress–with such memorable and haunting prose, how couldn’t I?–but this maybe wasn’t the right time for me to read a book so sad.

Whether intentional or not, all the stories in this collection are threaded through with the slow tragedies and indignities of old age. And there are many: lost memories, lost sex drives, lost eyesight, lost independence, lost purpose, lost spouses… The losses weigh heavily.

Even the stories supposedly not at all about old age, such as “Lucus Naturae,” could be read as being about old age and its unstoppable reach, as insidious as fear of the different and the strange. And just as final in the end.

As I said, it’s not a bad time for me to read about old people being attacked by the young, their homes burned to make room for the younger, bitter generation. It’s not a good time to read about an old writer who has become unhinged from reality, choosing instead of let herself be dissolved into the fantasy land she spent her life creating. But then, is there ever a good time?

My grandfather passed away suddenly recently, and I finally got to visit my other grandfather, who is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember who I am or why I was there. Between these two experiences, Stone Mattress is a very raw and close collection for me. It’s too much like the real tragedies I noticed in both situations.

There aren’t many books that tackle the hoary edges of time. We often assume, as a culture, that old age is the end of the line, that all stories must be told past-tense. For that reason, that bravery, Stone Mattress is a welcome treatise…even if I’m not ready to think on its meanings and significance. When you’re in a suitably contemplative mood, muster your strength and try this collection.

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My Top 10 Most Influential Books

I was challenged to the silly “book duel” on Facebook by an acquaintance, and though I typically don’t like those sorts of “pass it on” challenge deals, this was good to think about.

So here are the top ten books that have the most influenced me thus far:

I’ve been challenged to a “book duel,” which sadly doesn’t mean throwing books at other people. But it does mean listing 10 of the books that most influenced me. (I will be opting out of the “challenging” of others. Answer if you wish.) My top 10 most influential books, in no particular order:

1. The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay
2. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
3. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by the Brothers Grimm –the older, far scarier and more demented versions
4. Sandman comics, all of them, by Neil Gaiman
5. The Bible, without the context of which I wouldn’t understand much of modern literature, in addition to any faith-related benefits
6. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, for showing me how flexible and creative writing can be.
7. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, for my early editing education and one good panda joke
8. The Weather Wardens series by Rachel Caine, because she’s a local author who started young and made it big.
9. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. I just love that book.
10. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte.

Also, it wasn’t until I wrote this up that I realized I’ve MET three out of the 10 authors on this list; if we exclude the ones that are long dead, my percent leaps up to 50%! Wow!

What would make your list? What do you recommend?


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What Will You Miss After the Apocalypse?

I recently read Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the final in her post-apocalyptic trilogy of the same name. It’s set about a year after 99.9% of humanity died off, and the remaining survivors are just trying to get by. They are mostly safe and have the basics down, but the narrator of this third book periodically pines for some of the comforts lost–probably forever (things do look pretty bleak).

One sort-of funny moment comes when the women of the camp get excited about the arrival of a bunch of scavenged “feminine products.” They’re practically giddy and collected far more than they can use in a years’ time.
Which made me think: What small pleasure would I miss the most?
For me, without question, it is going to be my hair loops. Those little rings of elastic are sanity-savers for me. It isn’t even end-times and I already fight with my cat for possession of each one! I keep a spare in my purse at all times, and another is probably either on my hair or around my wrist, just in case. Since I probably wouldn’t be able to get regular haircuts in the dystopian future, those hair loops are going to take on additional importance.
But considering their tendency to snap at the worst possible times, they won’t be around for long after the Age of Man is over. …I’d better start storing up, actually…
So what will you miss, beyond the obvious stuff, like food and running water?


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Review: The Penelopiad

The PenelopiadThe Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Song of Achilles, I has a ken for more. I came to the right place with The Penelopiad by the outstanding Margaret Atwood.

Much like The Song of Achilles, the Penelopiad is a retelling of a classic tale from a new perspective. The Penelopiad, you might say, is the companion book to The Odyssey: the story told by Queen Penelope to match Odysseus’ epic.

In The Odyssey, just in case you’ve forgotten, the hero Odysseus is just trying to get home after 10 hard years in the Trojan War. But he’s pissed off Poseidon, making water travel difficult, and he gets into one scrape after another for 10 whole years. When he finally gets home, his wife and kingdom are beset by “suitors” after his money, so he tricks the suitors then defeats them with his skill with the bow that only he can string. Then, because he’s pissed, he kills all the suitors: all 110 of them or so.

A mere footnote in the story, however, is the death of 12 maids: they are accused of having been raped by the suitors (or having had sex with, depending on your view) and are forced to clean the hall of their spilled blood. Then, Odysseus and his son Telemauchus hang the maids. Odysseus retakes his throne and lives out his life.

The Penelopiad turns everything on its head. All of Odysseus’ grand achievements are thrown into question, and the 12 hanged maids form a Fury chorus to chant and sing out the story. Penelope is given shape beyond her “loyalty,” and is finally rewarded for her cleverness, her patience, her skill in running a kingdom all alone for 20 years and fending off the suitors.

This book was an eye-opener for me. I’d read the Odyssey, of course, but I don’t think I even noticed the maids, much less worried about the absolute unfairness of their plight. While I did think of Penelope a bit more, I didn’t reach beyond the story I was told: I took her loyalty at face-value as it was presented.

Until The Penelopiad threw off the covers. There was so much MORE to find in this story! The 12 maids, mere teenagers at best, were punished for something they had no control over: slaves can’t tell a prince “no.” Of all the people Odysseus killed, only the maids hadn’t really done anything to deserve it. They are literal pawns in this story.

Penelope is barely more, yet Atwood saw how much potential was in Penelope, and her relationship with Helen, the most beautiful–and most bitchy–woman in the ancient world. Penelope is there, plodding along in Helen’s shadow, trying to get by and having to work three times as hard, while Helen prances about and starts wars with the toss of her pretty little head. No wonder Atwood’s Penelope has some bite to her!

I got to meet Margaret Atwood, actually, and had her sign this book for me. Even though this was not the first of her books I discovered, this was the one that most rocked my world. During her presentation, she talked about this book, and how the injustice of the maids really stood out to her.  From snippets and bare mentions in the original text, she crafted this whole lush, emoting world for these women: it’s remarkable.

This book is a delight. Classics fans will get more out of it than someone new to the tale, but the story structure is enchanting regardless. It’s a lesson in deft storytelling and a joy to read. I only wish it were longer.

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Literary Summer

This month has been epic in a rather literary way. From the last week of May until this week, I have been lucky enough to hear and meet Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett from the A Way With Words radio show, author Margaret Atwood, and author Neil Gaiman.

I think I’ve hit some kind of trifecta there. I’m not sure of what, exactly, except perhaps the Jeopardy category of “People Who Make Your Heart and Brain Go Pitter-Pat.” I love the radio show (you can listen online!) and Atwood and Gaiman are both so high in my tier of favorite authors that I’m not even sure which gets the “best” appellation. Atwood was first and perhaps more influential to my personal writing style, but Gaiman is just so prolific and varied that I always feel like I’m discovering something else new (and often scary).

A Way With Words

If you haven’t heard it yet, A Way With Words is a nationally syndicated radio show about language. They do word jokes, explain the etymology of interesting words both colloquial and professorial, and, most of all, answer word questions from callers of all stripes. They have a philosophy of verbal flexibility (meaning that it’s ok that words change meanings and spellings over time and geography) and are incredibly kind and so shockingly learned. It’s like they’ve swallowed the OED and can now regurgitate on command.

I saw them at a special benefit for the Aberg Center for Literacy, an organization I’d not heard of previously, but they are advocates for literacy and therefore I like them. I had expected the show to be mostly a real-life version of the radio hour, but the organizers had mixed it up a bit. Greg and Martha each had a talk, with a game show format in the middle. Greg discussed the ways his young son was teaching him things about language and about how forgiveness is an important part of learning (and teaching). Martha’s talk was about a professor who really taught her to love language, and who became a teacher of more than academics, but of life. It was a very moving presentation.

They took questions from the audience, and I was stunned that my question was the first drawn. But it was too good a question, and they were stumped (“Does the phrase ‘brain-child’ have anything to do with the myth of Athena, who was born from the skull of Zeus?” Answer: “We dunno. Maybe? Sounds good, let’s say yes, sure, why not?”)

The question-and-answer bit really showed how much they knew off the top of their heads; they answered questions without any resources and without having known the questions ahead of time.

Atwood signing

Margaret Atwood

The first book of Atwood’s I discovered was “A Handmaid’s Tale,” arguably her most famous because it is both required reading and banned in schools, depending on your region. It was assigned in mine, and I did perhaps the most unconventional book report on record for it. Well, at least my most unconventional. I asked my teachers if I could “act it out.” They were very obliging souls, so they said yes.

When it was my turn to present my “report” on “A Handmaid’s Tale,” I solemnly walked to the front of the class, explained that the president and Congress were dead, and I was now in charge of the class. Several classmates turned and stared at our teachers, who just shrugged and said we’d all better listen. I broke up couples, confiscated religious jewelry, separated girls from boys, explained that the girls would now be divided into groups based on their ability to procreate and that the boys, if they were lucky and loyal enough, might one day get the privilege of a wife. One classmate protested my act, and I said that was fine, and he would be hanged. I had my “bodyguard” (who had previously volunteered, and thus got himself a wife) “execute” him, and he was mock-hanged in the front of the class, as an example for the rest.

Like I said, the most bizarre book report ever. I certainly won’t ever forget it.

I’ve since read and enjoyed many other of Atwood’s books (I have a particular fondness for “Oryx and Crake” and “The Penelopiad”), but “Handmaid” was revolutionary for me. It was bleak…really really bleak. Most of even the apocalyptic stories I’d read had shown a strong light of hope. It was all the worse because it was set in such a realistic version of our world, and it scared me on a level no book ever has.

Atwood came to speak as part of a Dallas Museum of Art Arts and Letters presentation. Ostensibly she was there to talk about mythology, but she did this only tangentially. She did show us lots of pictures of her drawings, at various ages. (Apparently she is also an illustrator, and I’m crushed that the copies of her books I have aren’t those she drew).

Mostly, she talked about her childhood. She grew up in the woods of Canada, and didn’t have running water or electricity for most of her childhood. Books were of preeminent importance because they needed things to do.

I think I told my dad that night that I was now upset that we’d had water and electricity, because how would I ever be a fantastic author now?

He didn’t seem that bothered by it.

Atwood took questions from the audience, and I happened to be sitting right by the microphone, so I leapt up and asked about her feelings on technology. She gave a very lovely and funny response about how her use of social media was like a biologist studying mosquitoes: she is offering her flesh up for consumption to test it out for the future benefit of authors and twitterers.

She was lovely and far funnier than I had ever expected and her brilliance really shown. And when I got up to the front of the signing line, I had no idea what to say and just sort of quietly thanked her for coming.

I still can’t believe it happened.

Gaiman signing

Neil Gaiman

And then, adding to the list of Things I Never Imagined Possible, I got to meet Neil Gaiman.

Well, me and about 1,500 other people (seriously. That theater was PACKED).

Gaiman is on his last-ever book signing tour, for “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” his newest book that is sort-of fiction, sort-of adult, sort-of magical. (I’m only a third of the way in, because I had to do things besides reading today and I’m very very upset about that, but I’ll be finished this weekend for sure).

Gaiman read to us from his new book, and I wanted his lovely sonorous English talking to go on forever, particularly when he tried on different British accents as appropriate.

I just read, tonight, the passage he’d read to us last night, and I hope it always stays this way, but I heard him again in my head, each syllable rolling around between my ears.

He then took some questions from the audience, and unlike Atwood they were all previously written down and presented to him on cards (and I’m bummed because I was stuck in the interminable line and did not get the chance to even ask a question via card). He joked that a huge stack of them were all “What was it like to work on Doctor Who?” so he’d removed those.

He only answered a few questions, and I admit I was a little disappointed; I wanted him to keep talking. But he was lovely and so kind and humble.

Then we got lucky, and he read from his next children’s book “Fortunately, The Milk.” It’s about a dad who has gone off to get milk for his children’s breakfast and…encounters some rather odd difficulty along the way. It was hilarious and I found myself leaning forward, forward in my seat trying to soak up more of it. He’s delightful. I’m definitely going to buy that one when it comes out in September!

And I was lucky enough to be seated in one of the nearer rows, so I didn’t have to wait too long to get my books signed.

Again, I got up there and just gaped like a goldfish. What do you say to your idol? I just almost-whispered “Thank you for coming out.” And he drew a heart in my book and I was so happy I had a Kristen Bell sloth moment as soon as we walked out. Seriously. Neil Gaiman made me cry.


So that’s been this month. I don’t know that I will ever be able to top that.

Provided you’re actually able to speak when given the moment (since I wasn’t), what would you say to your idol? And who would it be?


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