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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.

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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!

Virago Author of the Month – but which book to read??

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I seem to be suffering from a plague of indecisiveness at the moment – I’m finding it hard to make up my mind which particular book I want to read! Having eschewed most challenges this year, I am of course reading from 1951 for our forthcoming #1951club, but I’m also trying to keep up with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author of the month – it’s a good way to read books already on my shelves and as I have a *lot* of unread Viragos this has to be something positive!

This month’s author is Elizabeth von Arnim, and I’m pleased that I have plenty of her works to select from:

As you can see, there are plenty of her well-known works here and of the seven lovelies I own, I have read three:

Of the three, I read “German Garden” a long time ago pre-blog and remember loving it; “The Solitary Summer”, which is a kind of follow-up, was equally wonderful; and “Mr. Skeffington” was unexpectedly deep, as I came to it with memories of the Bette Davies film.

These are the four I haven’t yet read:

The obvious title to choose would be “The Enchanted April”, of course, and I have read good things about it; however, the others look appealing too. “Vera” I think is a little darker, and I don’t know anything about “Love” or “Fräulein Schmidt…” So – any recommendations? Has anyone read any of these four titles and if so, which would you suggest? I really do need to get out of this indecisive phase! 🙂

Setting sail for a final voyage – Virago Author of the Month

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No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West

One of my favourite online things is belonging to the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; definitely the nicest and friendliest of the LT groups I’ve come across, and always supportive and good fun for a challenge or readalong. The group often has some kind of project going on (a chronological read of Viragos, for example) but as some of us were a little stretched by challenges, this year’s has been kept simple after one of the members came up with the wonderful idea of having an author featured each month whom we could choose to read from or about as our whim took us. After a little voting, Vita Sackville-West was settled upon, which was a good choice for me as I have so many of her books lurking on the TBR, and have read so few! (Please note how much reading from the stacks I’m doing just now!) I decided to pick the slim volume “No Signposts in the Sea” as it’s a book I started once before then got distracted from, so now was the ideal time to read it.

signposts

Published in 1961, NSITS was Vita’s last novel, and it’s narrated by Edmund Carr; a middle-aged, cynical political journalist, he has been given a short time to live and decides he will spend it taking a sea voyage. This is no ordinary trip, however, as Carr has chosen to travel on a ship carrying Laura Drysdale, a widow with whom he’s in love, in the hope that he can spend his last months in her company. The decision to make the trip had been a spur of the moment thing, as on the day he received his medical sentence of death, he visited Laura and learned of the journey she was making.

Laura seems pleased to see him, and the two spend much time together on the journey. The ship sets off for southern, warmer climes and although there are islands and natives, we really have no idea where the cruise is going; Carr has no real interest in specifics, only thinking of Laura, and as he says, there are no signposts in the sea. As the journey continues, he reflects on his past, the change that has come over him since receiving the news of his demise, and the bittersweet pleasure of being in the company of someone he loves, but unable to tell her because of his impending death and his fear of disturbing what relationship they have.

An extra element is thrown into the mix in the form of Colonel Dalrymple; initially, Carr befriends the man and likes him very much, until he perceives that Dalrymple is attracted to Laura – and it seems to Carr that Laura is attracted back. However, the voyage is coming to a close for Carr, and a final revelation proves just how little we know or understand about our fellow humans.

I take it that any creative work, as opposed to my own hack effort, must be intensely private, not to be mentioned, least of all discussed. No doubt the actual process is comparable. One lives in a little world of one’s own, and nothing else seems to matter. The most egotistical of occupations, and the most gratifying while it lasts. To see the pages piling up, and to live in the persuasion that one is doing something worthwhile. Because of course one must hold on to that conviction, or one wouldn’t go on. Luckily a writer’s powers of self-delusion are limitless, and oh the smugness of feeling that one has done a good day’s work!

NSITS is a short novel (less than 150 pages in my Virago edition, although the type is fairly large so I’d be more inclined to call it a novella) but it contains much food for thought. It’s impossible to read this book without speculating how much it draws on Vita’s own life, and indeed the excellent introduction by Victoria Glendinning sets out the events in the author’s life that informed the book. Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson had been on a number of cruises, which Vita drew on for the book, and she also used the story to discuss her thoughts on life, love and writing through Edmund’s musings. She was already suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill her, and there is a bittersweet element running through the book that presumably reflects her state of mind at the time. Edmund Carr has gone from being cynical to sentimental, regretting his single life and considering what makes a good marriage and a meeting of minds; and I can’t help speculating that this latter must have been much on Vita’s mind as she looked back at her life and her unconventional union with Nicolson. The book also contains a direct discussion of lesbianism which I’m not sure that Vita had ever tackled in her work before.

vita-and-harold

However, the book is certainly not perfect. It reflects some very outdated and unpleasant attitudes to race which I would perhaps expected to start to be filtered out; certainly I wouldn’t have guessed the book was from the 1960s with these viewpoints on show. And there is a class element showing too; as Glendinning points out, although Carr is meant to be from a lower class than Laura, his thoughts, behaviour and attitudes are those of the author rather than someone who has worked his way up from humbler beginnings.

The text is interspersed with unattributed quotations and poems reflecting Edmund’s thoughts on particular topics, and I must confess I rather wished for an annotated edition giving background to these excerpts. Although Glendinning points out that the reader can have fun tracking them down (and they might have been more widely known at the time the book was published), I was too involved in the narrative to want to stop reading and do some research.

And involved I was. Despite my minor criticisms, the book is beautifully written and very evocative; the sense of the removal from reality and everyday life that occurs on a cruise is captured in Vita’s clear prose, and I felt as if I was at sea with Edmund, Laura and Dalrymple. NSITS is a poignant little book, full of thoughtful discussions of the important things in life, and a fitting addition to Vita’s oeuvre. This is only the second of Vita Sackville-West’s books I can be sure I’ve read (I loved her “The Heir” which I reviewed here), but on the evidence of these I can highly recommend her.

The aftermath of Switzerland

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Dawn’s Left Hand by Dorothy Richardson

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to realise that I have slipped just a little behind with my read of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” sequence of novels. I seem to be struggling to fit in reading at the moment, in the aftermath of the intensity of the 1947 Club; however, the recent excellent BBC4 Virago documentary spurred me on to pick up volume 4 recently and tackle the next book in the sequence – “Dawn’s Left Hand”.

pilg-4

The book picks up pretty much where the previous one had left off, with Miriam travelling home from Oberland. She seems to be finding leaving Switzerland a wrench, and in fact the place and its effects permeate much of the early section of the book. As usual, Miriam finds it hard to relate to fellow travellers en route, but is often too kind to shun them.

Back in her familiar London she takes up her old life, in more ways than one. Early in the book she visits an old acquaintance, Dr. Densley, an old beau who seems to still hanker after Miriam. She’s still working at the dentist practice, and she makes a break with Selina, her co-tenant, to return to her old boarding house. The relationship between the two women, always vaguely defined at best, seems to have completely broken down and given the chance to up sticks Miriam takes it.

Into Miriam’s life comes a new friend in the form of a French woman, Amabel, who develops quite a passion for our heroine. They meet at Miriam’s club and it is clear that she is still mixing with the Lycurgans. However, Miriam is distracted by her affair with Hypo, which appears to come to some kind of fruition, resulting oddly enough in a gulf seeming to develop between her and the Wilsons. The book ends on a strange note, with a meeting on the steps of Mrs. Bailey’s that may or may not be a major one – perhaps the next book will reveal all!

“Dawn’s Left Hand” is another short entry in the Pilgrimage sequence, and I wondered if it was almost too short to stand on its own and that maybe it would have been better attached to “Oberland” (or may “Clear Horizon”, which comes next, but that remains to be seen). Again, so much of the book is Miriam’s emotions and reactions to things, her contemplating the distance between men and women, and her relishing her solitude once more. As usual, Richardson does her trick of dropping huge events (deaths, dramatic adventures of relatives) into the narrative as passing comments, so as to retain the focus on the narrator’s state of mind. We are treated to Miriam dipping into the first person now and then, and the affair with Hypo is so discreetly written that if you didn’t read carefully you might miss it. Miriam in many ways seems torn between Hypo and Amabel, and I presume the latter was based on her friend Veronica.

I wondered a little about the title and when I did some research online, came up with this quote from Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald):

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry

It made me think if this was a little reference to Miriam deciding to take life on and embark on the affair with Hypo before she became older and love might pass her by – certainly, as I may have said before, there is the risk with her rigidity that she cuts herself off slightly from human interaction and the sacrifice that entails and it will be intriguing to see where the story goes next.

As always, the descriptions of London were lovely and atmospheric, and I enjoyed much of the time I spent in Miriam’s company. However, I got the feeling this was something of a bridging book, taking Miriam into a new phase of her life with the Hypo affair and the introduction of Amabel. I’ll be interested to see where the story takes me next!

The joys of chance finds!

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You might have noticed that there have been fewer book haul posts on the Ramblings lately. I *have* been trying very hard to be judicious about the books that come into the house, and a quick glance down the little spreadsheet I keep of acquisitions *does* show a lesser amount last month – and of those that came in, several were review copies and gifts from kind people. However, I was popping into the charity shops to donate yesterday, and it would have been rude not to look at the books – and by chance I came across these!

ambler-oliphant

Weirdly enough, “The Mask of Dimitrios” came from the same charity shop where I found my first Ambler title, “Epitaph for a Spy” – and for £1 is an absolute bargain – so pleased!

The beautiful Virago came from the same shop, also for £1, and it’s in absolutely lovely condition. I have another of Mrs. Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford, I think, so they can sit together on the shelves until I get a moment to read them…..

And the collected Peake poems came from the Samaritans – I wasn’t sure if I had a copy or not (I have his selected poems from many years ago), but I don’t appear to have it. Well, you can never be sure with my bookshelves, but I couldn’t turn it down.

And if I hadn’t been so laden down with goodies from Poundland, and stuff I’d been buying there for work, I might have come home with some other titles – but that’s another story…

Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

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I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

shelves-middle

As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

shelves-left

When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

shelves-rights

More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

more-west-and-comps

The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

smith

I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

litvinov

Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

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