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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Atwood

Wilderness Tips, by Margaret Atwood

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Reading Wilderness Tips pretty much confirmed what I’d suspected about Margaret Atwood for a while now, which is that the lady can do no wrong. At least in her writing. I just seem to love it no matter what, even if some of the stories themselves don’t appeal so much to me plot-wise (title story, I’m lookin’ at you). Does this set me up for unfulfilled expectations the farther I delve into her repertoire? Perhaps, but I haven’t been let down yet.

The stories in Wilderness Tips all share a certain longing, regret, and despair at the passing of time and opportunities missed. I guess they’re all kind of downers, but I never felt too completely trammeled by the pain of them. I also sensed in these stories as well as some of her other books, especially Cat’s Eye, that many of Atwood’s characters have a really interesting and complex relationship with feminism and the women’s movement of the ’60’s and ’70’s, which interests me. I’m tempted to attribute this tension to the feelings of Atwood herself, though I know that’s not quite fair and could be completely inaccurate. In any case, lots of her women protagonists encounter the the women’s movement at some point in their lives and seem supportive to some extent, but though they don’t feel at home in “a man’s world” they never seem to feel quite at home amongst other women, either. It’s become a dream of mine to be able to sit down and have a conversation with Atwood about this some day!  

Anyway, the highlight of the book for me was definitely the story Hairball. Oh, how i love it. It is so disturbing, so sickeningly sweet. It’s about a 30-something woman, Kat, who’s in the fashion business but losing her edge. She has been having an affair with a co-worker who she has shaped in her own image. She has made him stylish, successful, and now he is poised to usurp her power. At the same time, she has a benign growth removed from her body, and develops a real fascination with it. It sits in a jar upon her mantelpiece, and as Kat begins to lose control, she comes to depend upon this separate part of herself–this “hairball”–as a sort of emotional leverage, and when she decides to enact revenge upon her backstabber, she knows just how to use Hairball to her advantage.

Sound gross? IT IS. IT IS SO GROSS. So so gross. But also really satisfying, and so perfect, in the end. Upon finishing, I wanted to laugh, cry, and do it all again immediately. I brought this book home with me for the holidays so that I can share this story with family and friends (it’s okay, they expect this sort of sadism from me ;)). I would love to film their reactions as they read, as I have no doubt their facial expressions will be priceless. Anyway, read this story, if you dare. But not on a weak stomach 🙂

Written by Emily Jane

December 21, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

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This is probably my favorite Atwood yet, and though I’ve only read two of her many masterpieces so far, that’s saying a lot as I’ve adored both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye.

Alias Grace is based on the true story of notorious 16-yr-old servant Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who was served a life sentence for taking part in the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in the early 1840’s. James McDermott, the man found to be the principal instigator of the killings, was hanged. Both in reality and in Atwood’s fictionalized account, there are gaps in the story which would prove the extent of Grace’s culpability, or coercion by McDermott. Grace Marks herself claimed amnesiac episodes obscured her memory of the events, and was then considered somewhat of a medical/neurological enigma.

In Atwood’s telling of events, Dr. Simon Jordan arranges a series of interviews with Grace by which he aims to uncover the truth. Tricky business indeed. He is quite taken with Grace, surprised at her remarkable composure and directness. She was not the disheveled “lunatic” that he expected. She was not the erratic woman he’d read about. Most surprisingly, what Grace remembers of her life before prison she remembers with unusual clarity and detail. She tells him of her broken family, her trip across the sea, her work as a servant, and her friend Mary Whitney. Her lapses seem genuine to him, but he is unable to shake the feeling that she knows something she isn’t telling, and that she hasn’t told in any of the three versions of the story that she has previously allowed the public.

Are her lapses genuine? Did she do whatever she did willingly, or was she forced by McDermott? What exactly went on during the fits that, at one point, landed Grace in an asylum? Did Mary Whitney actually exist? These questions plague the reader as unbearably (yet enjoyably) as they do Dr. Jordan himself.

I don’t have any knowledge of cutting edge mid-19th-century medical theory so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Atwood gave Dr. Jordan a pretty solid grounding for where he would probably be coming from at that time concerning methodology, and I loved the inclusion of “quack” spiritualists and their role in the story as well.

With Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood succeeds not only in writing a totally engrossing murder mystery, but also explores what must have been the common experience of European immigrants to Canada, the realm of domestic servitude, and the conflicting approaches to dealing with women criminals and the “insane” in the mid-1840’s. It’s sociology made fun, and suspenseful.

I dare you not to get positively sucked into this one!

Written by Emily Jane

August 19, 2010 at 12:31 am

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Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

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Oh, my. Margaret Atwood is amazing. But we all knew that already, right?

So, Cat’s Eye. As a middle-aged woman, Elaine Risley returns to Toronto, where she grew up, to attend a retrospective of her paintings. Walking through the city, she is flooded with memories from her childhood. Everywhere she goes, she is haunted by three little girls who once called themselves her friends, particularly Cordelia, undisputed leader of the trio.

These “friends” were the first real friends Elaine had beside her brother. She wants desperately to please them, to fit in. So when they begin to engage in a game of “improvement”, by which they relentlessly point out Elaine’s faults and character flaws, driving her to shred the flesh of her fingers, peel the skin from the bottom of her feet, and bite her lips bloody in fits of anxiety, she does not know how to disengage from this damaging relationship, or even that she should. Most of the adults in the story are unaware of what’s happening; the ones that are do nothing to stop the torture.

Dynamics between this group of girls changes as they grow older, but Elaine’s relationships with other girls and women are forever complicated. She can never quite shake the feeling that they’re judging her and that she’s not quite holding up under their weighty expectations. She’s erected a barrier between herself and other women, so that all her interactions with them feel as if they’re happening from a great distance, from which they can never again get close enough to hurt her. Neither her encounters with the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s nor her own experience as mother to two daughters help her to feel less ostracized. She is aware that many of her prejudices against women are irrational, and that though she sometimes enjoys the privilege of being treated like “one of the guys”, the men in her life are as imperfect, as human, as the women.

This story was sometimes challenging for me. As someone who declared herself feminist as a teenager and was lucky enough to establish supportive friendships with like-minded peers, there were times I felt a bit defensive and wanted to say to Elaine: “But it’s not really like that! We’re not judging you. We’re cooperative, not competitive!”

But, alas. All too often, it isn’t true. We’re not all kind. We don’t always have each others’ backs. Some of us really are downright terrible to each other. Reflecting on my own elementary school experience, I can remember similar insidious aggressions taking place amongst the girls in class, asserting their power over those they deem occupy a similar range of social status, assuring the best possible position in the hierarchy they’ve already internalized. I’m sure all of us can remember such “games”, and I’m sure that, from the point of view of a bystander rather than a victim, many of them might have been more traumatizing than we might regularly allow.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the whole thing is, after all is said and done, realizing that Elaine’s general dislike of women stems from the fact that she does wish to be close to them, to have lasting female friendships: she is just so afraid they will be unreciprocal, and that even if she built up the courage to try and build one, she wouldn’t know how to begin. For in a way, she feels that her entry into girlhood was a disastrous failure. And where to go, how to relate, from there?

Even though I doubt I would quite understand or care much for a person like Elaine in real life, her story felt so true that I felt real empathy. From the moment I started this book, I loved it. I was completley enthralled with Atwood’s style, as I was upon reading The Handmaid’s Tale last year. Every word in every sentence she writes seems so perfectly placed, and yet not at all laborious to read. I became cranky every time I had to put it down. My next Atwood is going to be The Blind Assassin. Hoping, confidently, that the love affair continues unhindered…

Written by Emily Jane

July 25, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Posted in Novels

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