May 2013: Margaret Atwood
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I haven't read any of hers yet, have you guys? Which ones? What are your plans?
If you are new to her I would recommend The Blind Assassin or The Handmaid's Tale (the novel that sent me to university to study literature!)
I liked Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale a lot too. My biggest disappointment of hers has been The Robber Bride. I think I'll try to read Alias Grace for May.
It's been a while since I read The Robber Bride, but I remember it being interesting, page-turning, and fun. And I thought it was very devilishly clever. Anything more than that and I'll have to go pull out my reading journals to see what I thought.
Atwood is hit or miss for me, but enough hits keep me reading her books.
I've just downloaded Cat's Eye as an audiobook and will try to manage my thoughts about it.
I liked The Robber Bride and have read it a couple times. At the time I first read it, I hadn't come across the mutliple narrator technique often, but I liked it and thought Atwood used it well. I felt more pity than scorn for Zenia. She struck me as pretty pathetic. Always needing validation.
20> And I might try to find that short story to see what it adds.
I can remember a lot of detail about my single-digit years. I remember nothing of my 30s and 40s, however.
Yikes. That's pretty harsh, or are you joking?
I will finish Cat's Eye, but I don't like it as much as I hoped.
I've also just brought the short story: I Dream of Zenia with Bright Red Teeth and the 'Byliner Serial' (I have no idea what a byliner serial is! Any clue?) Positron on my kindle - all very cheap, but added up very quickly.
I also brought Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing which I'll be able to use for my MA, and Eating Fire: Selected poetry 1965-1995.
I've read a lot of the novels she has produced and some of her other works too so I'm looking forward to this discussion.
Byliner is a digital publisher for short fiction (and occasionally short non-fiction) :) Serial - I suspect you know what this is.
I found it incredibly dull. Elaine was so passive and compliant it's a wonder she had a pulse. Painful, but I finished it.
Other books of hers were more interesting and involving so I won't give up. Isn't MaddAddam due out this fall?
Sounds exciting! She certainly has a diverse repertoire.
As I mentioned earlier, a co-worker had lent me The Handmaid's Tale about a year ago, so I finally got around to reading that. It was a compelling read, and I enjoyed it, as much as one can say they enjoyed reading a book about a bleak dystopian future. That being said, I did have a few criticisms of the book. The first thing was that while I enjoyed how the book took some time to unfold, the part about the government massacre/overturn came a little to late in the book for my liking. Prior to this, I spent a lot of time thinking that the changes in society happened far too rapidly to be conceivable. Once I had a better sense of the magnitude of the takeover though, it became clearer how this was feasible. My other thought was that Atwood seemed a bit unclear as to where to lay the blame. Usually with a dystopia, it's pretty obvious what the problem(s) are and what things in our current society are taken to their logical extreme to cause this horrible nightmarish future. With The Handmaid's Tale, it seemed like disparate issues/entities were all to blame. For instance, on the one hand there's all this negativity toward feminists and some of the blame seems to be cast at women who didn't have children/have enough children. (There's also the ongoing negativity the main character had toward her own feminist mother, but part of that I could view as typical mother/daughter frustration.) Then there's also the severely fundamentalist religious folk who have taken over and started this new world order. Nonetheless, it was an engrossing read and one that was definitely thought-provoking. I know others in this group said they read it in the past or were planning on reading it, so I'd be curious to hear more of your thoughts on the book and the questions it raised.
After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I picked up two of Atwood's picture books for children - Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut and Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes. As you might guess from the titles, these are books that are mainly an exercise in Atwood writing books using as much alliteration as she can possibly cram into 32 pages. Princess Prunella seemed to at least have a bit more of a plausible plot, but overall I was disappointed in these books given that I found Atwood's other books so engaging.
My plan is to next tackle Atwood's sci-fi trilogy that begins with Oryx & Crake, but I've had that title on hold at my library for at least a week now and it still hasn't come in so we'll see when I finally get to that one ...
hmmmm. your comments about the handmaid's tale make me want to reread it (again). it's been a while, but i have read it a few times (it's one of my favorite books). i don't read a lot of dystopia fiction, so can't speak to that, but i definitely felt like (re: your 'where to lay the blame' question) this was taking things to a logical conclusion/extreme in the sense of how/why we value women. that's sort of always what i thought she was saying.
can you say more about the negativity toward feminists that you see? is this something about moira? i see what you mean if you're talking about how even the women attack each other and report on each other, but that (to me) is less a condemnation of feminism and more a description of indoctrination. (in our society, for example, women contribute to rape culture more or less as much as men do.) yeah, can you say more about what you mean about this? i'd be really interested in hearing more since i've never seen it that way - this book probably made me into a feminist, so i'm really interested in seeing the other side that i missed!
I've read a fair amount of dystopias, and generally speaking they are in the vein of taking things to the logical conclusion/extreme. For the most part, it seems like Atwood was going here with the extreme of fundamental religion / those who twist religion to make it say what they want (i.e., it's quite a feat of gymnastics to make the biblical tale of Abraham and Hagar into a model that people should emulate, let alone in the fashion described in The Handmaid's Tale).
But like I said, I felt like there were undertones of finger pointing at feminists also. One example was that in the epilogue, which is the more "objective" part of the book for what it's worth, the speaker describes the cultural milieu leading up to the Republic of Gilead's oppressive rule and specifically mentions not only religion but falling birthrates (which is implicitly blamed on women who had lives that involved more than just reproducing as many children as possible).
Other parts that seemed to sneer at feminism a tad bit were a little more veiled. Mostly it was the main character's sort of eye-rolling attitude toward her mother. She frequently seemed dismissive of her mother's outings/meetings, friends, marches, and the way her mother always talked about how she was a "wanted" baby (i.e., a baby her mother decided to have as a single woman, not one that her mother had because it was the next thing to check off the list of being a woman right after getting married). Like I said earlier, I think some of this could be chalked up to the (stereo)typical tense relationship between mothers and daughters. But there was a little bit about Moira also -- in particular, there was one flashback where the main character is describing how the women's rights were slowly (well, not so slowly) being eroded and she notes how Moira is almost smug with an "I told you so" attitude about it.
Of course, a difference here between your reading and mine may be that I came in to this book already staunchly a feminist and always looking at books with a feminist critique. All in all, I would call this a feminist book and one that shows how easily women's rights can - and in some places, are - taken away. One of the things I kept debating with myself while reading the book was the timeline, as I mentioned earlier. One part of me thought it seemed like so much had happened in so short a time period and then another part of me would recall that Afghanistan and Iran went very quickly from fairly egalitarian cultures to strictly religious ones with rights for women being severely curtailed. I think this book is very much a clarion call for women who feel safe and content with the way things are in North America (particularly the U.S.; I did find it interesting that Atwood chose to place the Republic of Gilead in what was formerly the U.S. and not her home country of Canada).
But all that being said, I did still feel like there was this slight undercurrent of "oh, these feminists. what is that they're doing anyway?" Maybe it was Atwood trying to say to feminists that more than a few marches are needed to reverse the course of patriarchal oppression. Or maybe it was her way of making the main character more of an "everywoman" that all readers, not just feminists, could relate to and identify with, thus driving home again the point that this could happen to anyone if certain aspects of society remain unchecked. Or, it could be that Atwood - who is a very astute observer of human nature and talented writer - wanted to paint a more realistic world in which everything is not black and white. (She does succeed in making even some of the "bad guys" of the book, such as the Commander and Serena Joy, pitiable at times.) At any rate, I think she effectively wrote a book that provides a ton of food for thought to chew over!
So, no, I didn't mean the way the women would sometimes point a finger at one another. I think that's something to be expected in extremely oppressive societies, such as the one depicted in The Handmaid's Tale, in which people live in fear and begin to rat other people out so that they seem like true believes and/or before someone else rats them out. (This is something we have seen to be historically true.) In Gilead, it wasn't just women anyway. The main character certainly describes plenty of men hanging on the Wall for some "crime" or another, who are most likely there after being turned in by someone else. The epilogue also describes a second wave of the religious fundamentalists who are more extreme than the first and go after Commanders who transgressed like the main character's Commander did by going to the club. I don't feel like I really judged any of the characters in the book for their actions (even the wives who ill-treated their handmaids out of petty jealousies, or the other household help who looked down on the handmaids) because I felt like the situation was such an extreme one and who's to say how any of us would react? I think all of us would like to think that we would die standing up for the right thing, but in reality probably most of us would end up like the main character - unhappy to say the least, but going along day by day because of our survival instincts and some sort of crazy hope that things might somehow change for the better.
oh, most definitely we would almost all end up in those circles in the gym confessing and chanting and pointing fingers like most of the characters did.
it's so interesting that i got virtually the opposite impression from some of the same things you point out. (i'll reiterate, though, that it's been a few years since my most recent rereading.) so the epilogue that you mentioned (which i'm chagrined to admit that i actually skipped the first two times i read the book, thinking it wasn't part of the story; maybe that's why i never ever ever skip an intro or acknowledgement page or anything now) i took to be a bunch of people (i think women and men but can't remember) in the future who were happy to blame women for not having babies like they were supposed to. i didn't take that to mean that falling birth rates were actually to be blamed on women focusing on more than incubation; i thought it was feminist commentary on how society (men and women both) are so quick to blame/judge/point fingers at women who "don't conform" or who aren't "useful" in the way that society wants them to be (the women in gray who are sent to ... work camps? when they're unable to bear children, or don't after a certain number of attempts.)
and i thought that the activism of the main character's mother (hard to call her offred, isn't it?), while it didn't resonate with her while she was growing up, was - maybe through moira and in the end through offred's own nonconformity - shown to be valuable.
the timeline stuff i admit to not remembering enough about at all. i don't remember noticing it before, or it seemed plausible enough to me that i didn't give it a second thought. but i definitely agree with out about this being a clarion call for women who accept the status quo and who think we've come so far. (i certainly heard it when i read it for the first time, that's for sure.)
But all that being said, I did still feel like there was this slight undercurrent of "oh, these feminists. what is that they're doing anyway?" to clarify - when you say "these feminists" in the book are they they women like moira or the may day women or the women before all "this" happened?
At any rate, I think she effectively wrote a book that provides a ton of food for thought to chew over! oh, indeed!!
Well, I guess that's what makes discussing books with other so interesting! We all bring our own ideas and perceptions to the table. :)
You make valid points about the epilogue, and I do believe it was a man speaking in that part, for what it's worth. But I also think they were supposed to be historians of some sort and looking at this distant past as objectively as possible. Therefore, they would include every single aspect of what lead up to this particular society. For instance, other than a few fringe people out there, we can all agree that Nazism was horrific and lead to the outbreak of World War II. However, historians will also point out that the harsh restitutions enacted by other countries on Germany at the end of World War I paved the groundwork for Hitler to rise to power in Germany, ultimately leading to the war. I think I saw the epilogue to The Handmaid's Tale as similar to this - while the religious fanatics share the biggest piece of the blame pie, other factors laid the groundwork and led the people to think that a change in society was needed (i.e., falling birthrates, fear of rape and other violent crime, etc.).
I should also be clear that when I say "blame" in all this, I don't necessarily mean "shaming" so much as "factors that allowed this to happen." But what you say about society being quick to blame women is certainly true (in reality, and in the book). It seemed like such a medieval concept that the handmaids who didn't have children were shipped off while the Commanders were given infinite chances with new women.
However, the Republic of Gilead was harsh to men that didn't measure up to their religious ideals as well, a point that I think can get lost when we view the book as strictly/solely a woman's story. As I recall, Luke is pretty much screwed from the start because he had been previously married and divorced. If that weren't true, he and the main character would probably been eligible to become "upstanding" members of this new society, for whatever that would have been worth. (Like I said earlier, Atwood gives you enough to pity people like the Commanders and their wives also. Some of my struggle with believing this society could happen was that it seemed like NO body was happy in the scenario laid out. The Commanders' wives certainly didn't seem so most of the time, and the Commander Warren only seemed so toward the end when we found out that he was breaking rules by interacting with his handmaids outside of proscribed times/rituals and by visiting the club.)
I never really saw the main character viewing her mother as particularly valuable. Again, I think some of this was typical mother-daughter tension because I don't see her dismissing Moira in quite the same way. When she finds out through Moira that her mother is probably still alive, she seems to be happy about that and I certainly think she loved her mother, but I'm not sure that she ever saw her mother's contributions as helpful. If anything, that society so rapidly spiraled downwards is perhaps an indication to the main character that her mother's work was worthless. Personally, I could see how a take-away message from the book would be that more women (and men) need to take up the feminist banner alongside the mother and Moira, but I don't think that the main character ever saw this. Her own nonconformity was also never a large-scale attempt to change society like her mother's was. Instead, she seems to just float along with the tides and make decisions after weighing her options. For instance, when she starts disobeying rules by sneaking around with the Commander, she does this because she realizes that she will get punished if she gets caught, but she will probably also get punished if she doesn't obey the Commander. When Serena Joy approaches her with the plan to sleep with Nick in order to get pregnant, she realizes that her chances of survival only remain high if she does eventually get pregnant so she goes along with this plan. And while she ultimately does continue meeting with Nick outside of Serena's proscribed times, she makes particular note of how she is ashamed of herself for doing so (mainly because she feels like she is betraying Luke, but it's still worth noting that she doesn't hold her behavior up as a model for others).
to clarify - when you say "these feminists" in the book are they they women like moira or the may day women or the women before all "this" happened?
Mostly, I think the more dismissive attitude seemed to come from the main character toward her mother and her mother's set of friends, but I suppose it could apply more broadly to any of the feminists before society was taken over by the religious extremists. Not sure if that helps to clarify much!
i wish i remembered more about the mother-daughter relationship between the main character and her mother, but what you're saying rings true. but also realistic, i think. so maybe she doesn't fight the culture in any real way and for any other reason than her own survival depending on it, but that's kind of what most of us do, isn't it? maybe part of atwood's point is that - shown by how offred while she ultimately does continue meeting with Nick outside of Serena's proscribed times, she makes particular note of how she is ashamed of herself for doing so (mainly because she feels like she is betraying Luke, but it's still worth noting that she doesn't hold her behavior up as a model for others) is a part of the culture. like most of us are part of the rape culture that exists now. women contribute to it and have to fight falling into its traps as much as men do (although with different consequences), and maybe this just shows how hard it is for an average woman to completely go against whatever the prevalent culture is, even if it's oppressing her in particular.
maybe i'm just pulling at strings to make this more of a feminist read than it is, because i feel like her relationship with her mother can be seen as a feminist statement whether or not she ended up viewing her as valuable and her activism as valuable.
i totally agree about the epilogue. but to continue your example about hitler - while historians are probably better at being objective than the average person, if they're working in a culture that has certain engrained prejudices, they will, too. so, in 150 years, some historians are looking into what started ww2 and the rise of hitler, if the society has become radically anti-semitic again, they might view what led up to ww2 totally differently than we view it now. and put the blame on the jews that ruined the economy of germany, and point to the (discredited) protocols of the elders of zion as evidence of what "needed to happen" to restore germany, etc etc. in the same way, i felt like atwood was saying, "look, all these years later, these people are stillblaming women. (so go out and do something about it.)"
definitely making me want to reread this!!
An excellent point!
And I very much agree about your analysis about culture and being a part of/trying to fight against it. I think that Atwood's making the main character somehow who for the most part goes with the flow made her a very relatable character as I feel that most of us - as much as we'd love to say we'd be the resistors - would also be going along for the ride and waiting to see what would happen next rather than attempting to change course ourselves (sorry for the mixed metaphors).
> 53 Cool! Hopefully I'll remember to look out for that ...
yeah, i think that's what made it all feel more realistic to me - that most people didn't fight it, that most women were like, let's wait and see what happens before we do anything drastic... unfortunately that's how most of us operate and as much as i call myself a radical feminist, the reality is i'd likely do the same at first. so i guess i appreciate a story that feels more true for most people, and we do see her evolution throughout, even if it isn't coming all the way out on the other side...
ok, sg, i'm composing my review as i write this and haven't reread our entire conversation as i write it, either. but here you go:
the two things i remember our conversation focusing on was the relationship between the main character and her mother, and the historical notes at the end. as to the relationship, i paid particular note to this and really didn't find it unrealistic or an anti-feminist statement. it seemed to me more like your typical relationship between mother and daughter, especially when the mother is an activist who isn't afraid to speak her mind and the daughter is a teenager who is embarrassed by the very existence of her mother. i was more surprised that moira, who is in-line philosophically with the main character's mother, used the word "cute" to describe her once. i agree that the main character didn't really value her mother as much as she could have (she agrees, too; at one point she acknowledges this and says that she wishes she could tell her) and definitely didn't value her activism. this, to me, is a larger point that atwood is making, though. so at the end, we have this salvaging where a man is killed by the handmaids because he is a political dissident (not that they know that, but still). then ofglen has to kill herself or be taken away, probably to be tortured. she seems pretty central to the mayday movement, or at least very much in the know. so you have these people who are active in changing things, in doing things, who believe so much in what they're doing that they die for it. and then you have the rest of the world who (eventually) stands upon their backs. the main character says she is weak, and she is. she stands on the backs of her mother and that generation's activism, and on the back of ofglen and her (and others) resistance. and she survives it. the ones who are killed are the ones who resist, but their resistance paves the way for the society to change. i think this is really realistic. most of us aren't ofglen, most of us want someone else to be ofglen and want to believe that there is a resistance and are just waiting until that resistance gets its work done. she is most women, i think. i don't think she devalues her mother's activism any more than she'd devalue her mother's taste in clothes or music. like a lot of people today, she didn't feel the need for feminism because she was standing on the backs of women, but she didn't realize that.
the historical notes. i didn't remember them being so...patronizing and flippant about that time period. that is actually what struck me most - that they (and i love the implication that the natives reclaimed the land) were so dismissive of it, even as they were studying it. also that they focused only on the declining birth rate and minorly on things like some nuclear waste, but that the main character seemed to mention something major happening (in a nuclear sense) that caused 25% of pregnancies to be unviable.
i guess this reading enforced what i was feeling beforehand. which may mean that i came to it not quite ready to see things differently, but i tried. i really find, though, this to be such a feminist book, and a near perfect novel.
oh, and as to the timeline, yes - it's a bit skewed. but (again, i'm making excuses?) i feel like she does that on purpose, to say that this could happen right now, right now, right now. we don't need to go between point a, where we are, and point b, when this can start, via some kind of major catastrophe and years of change and a slippery slope (other than the president, congress, and gov't being annihilated), but that we're here already, right now, if something like the gov't disappearing happens.
Also with you on the historical notes seeming a bit patronizing. I found that whole part to be a bit odd actually, and I'm still not sure how much I liked having that epilogue added on to the end. In one respect, it was I guess reassuring to know that Gilead didn't last forever (although it did get worse before it got better), but then again it seemed pessimistic also - as though the historians' flippant treatment of the causes leading up to this state of things makes it seem inevitable that something in a similar vein will happen again. I guess that's a warning also (and something realistic) - "there's nothing new under the sun," history repeats itself time and time again.
i don't like reading the historical notes. the book itself is so well written, and this is a talk, and it's written like one. and a talk that i wouldn't attend given the choice. but i do really like knowing:
- the main character survives for a while.
- gilead doesn't last
- nick was probably on the mayday side
- that even knowing all of this the ending is still somewhat ambiguous
i thought you might like this article i came across, written by atwood about the handmaid's tale about 2 years ago. it addresses two of the things we talked about, at least a little - the epilogue and the plausibility of what happened.
Book on CD read by Laura Merlington
From the book jacket In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. … In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?”
I studied Homer’s epic in high school but had really forgotten much except for the basics. Atwood delves into the background of both Penelope and Odysseus, as well as the political (and personal) reasons for the Trojan War and her moves to protect her husband’s estate for their son. She gives us a woman who is intelligent, caring, and tenacious. This Penelope is not simply a woman who is content to stay at home waiting for her man. She is actively working to achieve her goals, carefully (if not always successfully) developing allies in help with her scheme.
Atwood uses the twelve maids (who are hanged as complicit in the plot) as a chorus to fill in some of the gaps. This is an effective technique in this novella … in print format at least.
The audio is read by Laura Merlington. Her performance was fine when voicing the chapters narrated by Penelope. But the audio used an incredibly irritating digitally enhanced “multiple voice” for the chorus. You know those “disguised” voices used to protect people when interviewed on a news show? That’s what this chorus sounded like! Skip the audio; read the text.
i was planning on reading them both soon (first the odyssey since i remember next to nothing and thought i should refresh my freshman year in high school - 1994 - reading in general, and also to prep for atwood's book, then the penelopiad) and will try to remember to let you know if i think it helps or is worth it.
Personally, I think it looks well done, but it's a little too frighteningly possible at this point in time for me to be able to watch it. I may reconsider though.
In a similar vein, I saw this article today in which Atwood says she doesn't hear people saying the book's premise is that inconceivable anymore (no pun intended).