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The Lure of the Frozen North #viragoauthorofthemonth @margaretatwood

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Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

In what subtle way does the universe convey the knowledge that it has ceased to be friendly? (W.H. Blake)

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this post that I am a massive admirer of the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood. I’ve been reading her work for decades, and she’s a writer I regularly return to over the years, always discovering something new and wonderful in her books. The LibraryThing Virago group have been picking an author of the month to read this year, a challenge I’ve been dipping in and out of, and November’s choice was Atwood. I almost ran out of time with this one, despite being desperate to read more of her work, but I *did* manage to squeeze in one title. And oddly enough it turned out to be another non-fiction book, which would fit in with the Non-Fiction November challenge that’s going around, although that’s purely coincidental…

You might have noticed that I flagged up the fact that Atwood is Canadian, a fact well-known and one that I wouldn’t normally have mentioned. However, it becomes relevant here because ‘Strange Things’ is specifically about Canadian literature and how it’s been informed and influenced by particular themes or events in the country’s past. I do have a little connection with the country, as my late father was actually born there while his parents were working abroad, and so he held dual passports; and I’ve always felt an attraction to the place which hasn’t diminished in recent years as Canada does come across in the media as a rather tolerant and nice country to live in. In fact, during the Brexit shenanigans, several family members joked half-seriously that it might be worth us all decamping there…

If you ask a writer to give a lecture, you’ll get a writer’s lecture; and as we all know, the inside of writers’ heads resemble squirrel’s nests more than they do neatly arranged filing-cabinets.

But I digress. Onto the book, which is a collection of four pieces delivered as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, and these focus on the influence of the wilderness of the Canadian North on writers and indeed Canadian culture. I should ‘fess up that I’m actually pathetically unwell-read when it comes to CanLit, so much of what was discussed was new to me – which is good, but embarrassing…

Vintage photo by Caroline Moodie

The four starting points for the lectures are the doomed Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the mysteriously monstrous (and cannibalistic!) Wendigo; and how women writers have developed their own take on exploration. Within these topics Atwood ranges far and wide, exploring all kinds of sub-concepts, from the fact that the North is usually portrayed as female and how women writers deal with that aspect; our love of a tale of doomed exploration; the various aspects of being a monster, whether a completely external kind or one which is part of ourselves in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde way; through to the strange need of non-native peoples to adopt a native image or heritage. All of this is delivered in Atwood’s trademark crisp prose and dry wit – until re-reading her recently I had forgotten just how funny she can be, but once again I was laughing out loud in places.

These two renditions of Native people, as either better than whites or worse – with whites being the norm, the standard for comparison – ought to sound very familiar to women, polarized as they have been until so recently into angel-wives or demon-whores.

However, there *are* serious points to be made here, not the least of which is the fact that women have regularly been marginalised in Canadian mythology, never the ones who go out and explore but rather the ones that stay inside and make the homes; or worse still, allowed to personify the wilderness that has to be explored and penetrated. Atwood also expresses concerns about our behaviour towards the natural world, commenting:

… if white Canadians would adopt a more traditionally Native attitude towards the natural world, a less exploitative and more respectful attitude, they might be able to reverse the galloping environmental carnage of the late twentieth century and salvage for themselves some of that wilderness they keep saying they identify with and need.

It’s funny how there can be little synchronicities in life, and unexpected connections that pop up when you’re reading. For example, in the section of the book on Canadian women’s writing, which Atwood entitled ‘Linoleum Caves’, she covers “Bear” by Marian Engel; and I got much more from this particular section having read Books,Yo’s recent illuminating post on this book. Although Atwood comments on the bear’s particularly talented tongue (ahem….), like Books, Yo she’s aware that this is not the real point of the work, though perhaps both commentators here draw different conclusions as they’re coming from very different angles.

Atwood also touches briefly on the work of Robertson Davies, an author I have lurking close at hand, and certainly “Strange Things” has made me very keen to explore Canadian literature in more depth. She closes the book with another stark warning about the effect that our inability to address climate change is having on the world, and this resonated particularly strongly with me too; I haven’t recovered from the section of Simon Reeve’s recent “Russia” documentary when he explained how much of the permafrost had melted – it’s quite terrifying…

So, yet another masterly work by Margaret Atwood; I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by her work and I’m finding her non-fiction works particularly engrossing lately. Eldest Child has indicated a wish for some Atwood books for Christmas, so I now have the lovely task of trying to decide what to treat him with – and the quality of her work is so high, that I think the choice will be particularly difficult….!

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Time for some 1970s clubbing…

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… by which I’m not suggesting that we all get dressed up in flares and platforms heels and go out discoing to glam rock…

Instead, I thought I would mention that the results are in! Simon has been feverishly counting the votes for the next reading Club year, and the winner is:

So there you have it! Our next reading week will be the #1977club. Time to start digging in the stacks and online lists to see what titles we can come up with. I know that there is at least a Richard Brautigan I have from that year (somewhere…), and as I failed to squeeze him into 1968 I shall do my very best to make sure I read at least this one!

Simon has come up with another eye-catching logo (he’s so good at these!) and as you’ll see from the dates, you have five months or so to get preparing, researching and reading – and we’re looking forward to seeing what you come up with! 🙂 I had a preliminary dig in the stacks and found that I have at least three other books from 1977 without even looking very hard:

Some commenters have wondered why we aren’t going on into the 1980s or back before the 1920s with the clubs, and to be honest that’s because of our personal tastes! Simon is particularly happy in the 1920s I know, and I don’t think either of us always feel drawn to modern writing. Personally, I’m inordinately fond of 20th century literature in the decades we feature, and as Simon pointed out to me, the dawn of cheaper printing from the 1920s onwards gives us more books choose from.

OK – maybe some things about 1977 weren’t so good…..

So – here’s to the #1977club, and we hope as many of you as possible will join in with this next year –  happy reading! 🙂

Another side to a great novelist #1968Club

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The Animals in that Country by Margaret Atwood

One of the joys of our club reads is that they prompt so much digging in the stacks and researching into books to read. And while I was digging about for 1968 I realised that one of the wonderful Margaret Atwood’s poetry books had been published in that year – which was very exciting…

Atwood’s poetry is a place I haven’t gone before; I love her fiction and non-fiction writings of all sorts, but for some reason have never picked up the selected poetry volume of hers I own. Unfortunately, getting hold of a copy of the actual 1968 book, “The Animals in that Country” has proved beyond me at the moment, as they’re so expensive, so I’ve had to go with those poems which made it into the “Selected” volume…

 

I am the space you desecrate
as you pass through.

There are 14 works extracted from the original collection and in fact it’s worth reminding ourselves that Atwood started her writing career as a poet – her first collection was published in 1961 and this was her fifth. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Atwood’s poetry but it was the kind of verse that appealed to me from the start – beautifully written, immediate and very thought-provoking.

Her subjects range from riffing on Frankenstein and his monster, through the vagaries of living in rented accommodation to the dangers of reading newspapers, and always in a particularly Atwoodian turn of phrase and mind. A particular stand-out for me was “I Was Reading a Scientific Article”, a love poem inspired by an image of the brain, which was very resonant. In fact, there are several very beautiful love poems, including this short one which I want to share here:

Axiom

Axiom: you are a sea.
Your eye-
lids curve over chaos.

My hands
where they touch you, create
small inhabited islands

Soon you will be
all earth: a known
land, a country.

The 14 titles I read here were all marvellous, and have left me itching to explore more of this book.  I really don’t know why I haven’t read Atwood’s poetry before (I know that Middle Child has – in fact, I think she has this book too), particularly as this was the first form her published writing took.

So – a successful first read for the #1968club. There is a short interview with Atwood on the CBC site here from 1968, where she discusses poetry, and it’s worth hearing (in fact, the CBC site seems to have a number of Atwood recordings to be explored).  And if I wasn’t focusing on 1968 this week I suspect I’d be pulling more Atwood books off the shelf!! 🙂

A bit of an epiphany

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In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)

 

Making sense of worlds real and imagined with @MargaretAtwood

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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood

I must admit to approaching this review in a state of trepidation. Reading Margaret Atwood’s “In Other Worlds” has been something of an all-consuming experience; it’s a wonderful and complex book, full of delights and revelations, and I doubt I can do it justice in a simple blog post. However, for what it’s worth I’ll put down my thoughts and share them with you – however flimsy my views seem to me after reading this book.

A lot of visitors to the Ramblings will have no doubt seen the recent BBC documentary on Atwood, which I thought was marvellous. There were a number of quotes scattered through it that drew on the author’s early life and I tracked these down to this book; there are several points where she talks about her formative reading years which particularly resonated and so it seemed a good time to take this one off the shelf and explore further.

“In Other Worlds” is subtitled ‘SF and the Human Imagination’ and collects together a series of lectures/essays given by Atwood, either in person or in written form. Appended to this are a selection of reviews of, and writings on, specific science fiction works, as well as some short fictions of Atwood’s own that could be said to slot into the genre. She is, of course, the author of a number of longer works which could be classified as sci-fi, although the fluid nature of that classification is one of the many things she explores in her writings. The genre has expanded to include basically anything which is not straightforward narrative rooted in reality, and more and more modern books seem to encompass what she calles “bendiness of terminology, literary gene-swapping and inter-genre visiting”.

But surely all draw from the same deep well: those imagined other worlds located somewhere apart from our everyday one: in another time, in another dimension, though a doorway into the spirit world, or on the other side of the threshold that divides the known from the unknown. Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Sword and Sorcery Fantasy and Slipstream Fiction: all of these might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella.

And as she later reminds us, “the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.”

The first three, longer pieces, collected as “In Other Worlds” are a personal history of Atwood’s relationship with sci-fi and her thoughts on it, and they’re absolutely fascinating. “Flying Rabbits” looks at the genesis of sci-fi and where the impulse comes from to write such stories; “Burning Bushes” explores the relationship between religion and mythology, and how they mutated into and informed the genre we know and love; and “Dire Cartographies” looks at the physical placement of our larger-than-life fictions, how we map them and the problems with utopian/dystopian settings. Yes, we’re back with Utopias again – a recurrent theme on the Ramblings at the moment, and in a world that is turning truly more dystopian every day, a very relevant one.

Margaret Atwood image c. Jean Malek

The autobiographical elements here were absolutely fascinating; Atwood relates how she began writing stories as a child, how sci-fi stayed with her through her growing up and university years, and how she eventually came to write the adult fictions we know now. I loved reading about her time at university and as a young writer; the critical writings of Northop Frye, obviously an important influence in her formative years, are a regular touchstone. It was astonishing to read that she was actually not allowed into a particular library which housed modern poetry simply because she was female. However, there’s so much more than the autobiographical in this work. The narrative is studded with brilliance: discussions of our human need to tell stories and make sense of the world, exploration of what exactly sci-fi should or can be defined as and how it relates to the everyday world. Blending the autobiographical with criticism makes for a potent and engrossing mix, and also stops the book from ever being dry and dusty. In fact, the only dry thing here is Atwood’s sly wit, with a number of turns of phrase making me laugh out loud. For example, she reminds us when discussing “Brave New World” that “who can do what, with which set of genital organs, and with whom (is) one of humanity’s main preoccupations”!

Atwood makes many fascinating points about the development of utopian and dystopian fiction and is of the opinion that there are no pure utopias: each attempt at one carries within itself a dystopian mirror image, a kind of yin/yang thing which perhaps represents the dual nature of human beings. In fact, she regards the two states as so indivisible that she conflates them, coining the term ‘ustopia’ to encompass them both. She’s right that, as a species, we’re nothing if not contrary and as questing beings are never really satisfied with perfection. Instead we have the constant need to explore; and Atwood makes the pertinent point that while the world was unmapped, early utopian stories were placed on the margins of what we knew; as the world became explored more widely, tales of strangeness were set on lost islands or dark areas of the globe; finally as the world became too familiar, sci-fi took over in the form of other lands and parallel realities. I suppose underneath this was a certain strand of escapism: if this world is too difficult we can slip sideways into another but of course, we go back to the human need for exploration again. Her comments on our need for maps for understanding everything around us (not just ‘proper’ geographical things, but to make sense of our world) are outstanding. Her take on the place of religion in all this is also pithy, warning the reader at one point about the Bible of “the dangers inherent in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally”.

The second section of the book “Other Deliberations”, with its collection of Atwood’s thoughts on sci-fi works and authors, gives us a fresh look at some classics, and always through her wonderfully individual eye. Some of the stories she writes about are those you would expect: “Brave New World”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, plus a heart-felt and potent homage to Orwell, stressing his relevance to the modern world. Some, however, were new to me and left me with a long list of books to go out and explore. In fact, Orwell and Huxley reappear at regular intervals throughout the book, with their works coming to exemplify the tendencies Atwood sees in modern society:

Approximately five years after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was published, the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West slapped itself on the back and went shopping, and pundits proclaimed the end of history. It looked as if, in the race between ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Brave New World’ – control by terror versus control through conditioning and consumption – the latter had won, and the world of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ appeared to recede. But now we see a United States weakened by two draining wars and a financial meltdown, and America appears to be losing faith in the basic premises of liberal democracy. After 9/11, the Patriot Act passed with barely a cough, and in Britain citizens have accepted a degree of state supervision that would once have been unthinkable.”

And finally, a selection entitled “Five Tributes”, short pieces written by Atwood that fall into the sci-fi genre. Having been primed about her thoughts on sci-fi in the previous section, these were particularly powerful and moving; Atwood is such a magnificent writer that she often cuts straight to the heart of things with a single, perfectly formed sentence which can devastate the reader. Undercutting all of the stories is her intelligence, her wild imagination, her love of our planet and her horror at what we’re doing to it. These are not just works about science and the future, but are really about the fundamental human condition. Ending the book are two entertaining shorts: an open letter to the Judson Independent School District, who had banned “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and a very entertaining piece on pulp magazine covers – the former a reminder that there are still plenty around who would stifle freedom of expression, and the latter advising us not to be judgemental about what constitutes art and what doesn’t!

We are not only what we do, we are also what we imagine. Perhaps, by imagining mad scientists and then letting them do their worst within the boundaries of our fictions, we hope to keep the real ones sane.

I make no apology for the length of this review, because I think “In Other Worlds” is a profound and important work. It has so many riches that it’s hard to know where to start, really, and I’m still not sure if I’ve actually conveyed just how powerful a book it is. You can see from the sheaf of post-its sticking out of my copy what an effect it had on me and how many things I wanted to quote and remember. I haven’t attempted to pass all of them onto you, because I would have to quote half of the contents and that would be a bit silly. What I can say about this book is that it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year – possibly *the* best, although we still have a few months to go – and that it would most definitely go onto my pile of desert island books. It’s thought-provoking, entertaining, erudite, funny and wise. Who else could range with ease across subjects as wide-ranging as the birth of a reader, the tendency for world-building and the significance of metal bras? I always knew Margaret Atwood was a genius – but reading “In Other Worlds” has confirmed it for all time. As I’ve said, this is not a simple book about sci-fi, but one which touches on matters that involve all humanity and their fate on this small, beautiful and much-abused blue-green planet. All I can say is – go out and read the book- it’s that important.

An eclectic reader…

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I said recently, after having reintroduced myself to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful books via “Murder in the Dark“, that perhaps I should just have a month of reading her works and nothing else. Well, I’m now thinking that might not be a bad idea; I’m currently making my way through her collection “In other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”, and it’s absolutely marvellous and very, very thought-provoking. The number of post-its sticking out of my copy already will tell you not only how much of an effect the book is having on me, but also how hard it will be for me to write a cogent and sensible review!

However, I wanted to share one particular quote which particularly resonated with me. Atwood draws on her lifelong love of books as a reader, scattering the narrative with autobiographical references, and this really chimed in with the way I feel about reading:

By the time I was nine or ten, I had become a confirmed under-the-covers midnight flashlight reader, devoting myself not only to adventure stories but also to comic books of an increasingly wide variety. In my daytime life, I would read anything that was handy, including cereal boxes, washroom graffiti, Reader’s Digests, magazine advertisements, rainy-day hobby books, billboards, and trashy pulps. From this you might conclude that I quite possibly have never been an entirely serious-minded person, or perhaps that I simply have eclectic tastes and like to rummage. Given a choice between a stroll in a classic eighteenth-century garden and the chance to paw through someone’s junk-filled attic, I would probably choose the attic. Not every time. But often.

As someone who used to sit and read the HP Sauce bottle over and over again whilst eating my mum’s frankly indifferent cooking, and who loves to rummage, I can empathise… More on this book when I’ve finished it – it really is excellent!

#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

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