Tag Archives: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

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This book is published by Penguin/Knopf Canada in The Hogarth Shakespeare collection. It is a creative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare: the language usually stumps me and the plays I have seen were difficult to follow (and if held outdoors, we got eaten alive by mosquitoes).

Atwood offers a version of the story of revenge where the former creative director of a theater festival seeks revenge on the men that terminated his position. The occasion for revenge takes many years to show up and our mad man (mad in many sense of the word) lives in seclusion until he sees an opportunity to teach in a literacy program for inmates at the local prison. Coincidentally, after a few years of being involved with the program, the two men aforementioned are now government ministers and are scheduled to visit the penitentiary at the time where a literacy session ends and the inmates will be ready to perform the play they have been working on. The teacher gains the collaboration to stage a bit of interactive theater to scare the ministers into continuing funding for the literacy program as well as getting the teacher his former position back.

What I didn’t like in the book:

  • Too many coincidences! A coincidence may be a useful device to move action along, but there are many, many coincidences in this book.
  • Some parts are a bit too long and I was losing interest.
  • The ending is very unrealistic, with the mad man being reinstated in his former position with the theater festival. Too many assumptions here: the position still exists after many years, there wasn’t an incumbent (or one was easy to kick out – see my speculations on what could happen next with this), the mad man was still the right person for the job.
  • The teacher smuggles things into the jail way to easily.

What I liked in the book:

  • The dialogues are very good and very entertaining.
  • I am glad that I stuck through the parts I thought were too long. In the end, it was a rewarding read and I think I have a better understanding of the play.
  • There was quite a bit of humor, especially in the interactions with the inmates.
  • Showing the inmates are men with existing skills and the ability to develop new skills even though it was not always easy humanized those characters.
  • The book ends with a synopsis of the play, which helps to put a lot of the information in the book into context.

One of the exercises that the teacher asks his inmates-students to do at the end of the course is to come up with a story about what happens with a specific character after the end of the play. So I will do that with the character of the teacher in the book.

First option: In order to give the teacher his old job back, the current director had to be reassigned to another position. While he agreed to go along, he nevertheless carries a grudge and spends years waiting for an opportunity for revenge. And on it goes…

Second option: In the short term, the teacher gets what he wants, and all seems to go well for a while. He is getting on in age and is starting to have some short term memory loss. As dementia sets in, he starts having both nightmares and hallucinations in which the vengeful actions he took against the two ministers turn against him. So, similarly to option 1, he becomes himself the victim of revenge even though it is only happening in his own head… One day, in the middle of a very powerful hallucination, he runs across the street is struck by a van. The end.

I suppose there could be many other ways to continue the story. What do you think?

Reference:

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. Knopf Canada, 2016.

Other things:

http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/HSR/hogarth-shakespeare

http://www.repercussiontheatre.com/shakespeare-in-the-park/

 

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Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

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I have already said I was disappointed by the book, although it was not a bad read and I had a few giggles at the more ludicrous scenes. So what did I not like? The social setting was lacking some of the complexity of some other Atwood novels, the characters were for the most part quite unidimensional, and the writing was less crafted as I would have expected. I was asking myself if I would have the same reaction to the book if I had not seen the author’s name. Honestly, I think I would have found it a little simplistic.

The book starts with Stan and Charmaine living in their car because they are down on their luck, in a world where many have lost jobs and homes, and the world has become a much more dangerously place to live. It is a little like the cutthroat environment in Station Eleven, where even the sweetest person can have three tattoos of daggers on their arm, indicating they have killed three times. Or else, we are back in the pleblands of Oryx and Crake.

As they are both wondering how long they can last in that environment, Stan having no job and Charmaine waitressing in her dirty clothes for very little money. They are then offered an opportunity to move into a closed community where they can have a house, a job, an income, security. The downside? They can never leave (Hotel California, anyone?) and they have to enter the jail facility for a month on alternating months. So they have a job on the outside on alternating month, and then, they have another job while they are in jail.

The first question that comes to mind is why the alternating assignments? Wouldn’t it just work if people lived in their homes full time instead of having alternating occupants move in and out of jail on switchover days? What I have concluded is that some of the jobs that people are assigned to do while in jail are somewhat morally objectionable and one could hardly rely on “free” individual to choose to do them. Hence the contrivance of jail time to induce people to do this work.

As the whole business model of the closed community comes under scrutiny, some people from inside devise a scheme to smuggle out information to expose the questionable practices of the organization and the corruption of its leaders. This involves smuggling Stan out while passing as an Elvis look-alike sexbot and Charmaine flying out to a meeting with her boss who is the CEO of the corporation and who expects her to become his sex slave.

The attempt to expose the crooked business seems to work and Charmaine and Stan are reunited in the end. Whether it will be happily ever after depends on how each of them chooses to perceive their past experience and their current choices… And there is certainly more than one way to look at things.

Many other reviewers have found this book disappointing. I cannot recommend it, especially not to someone who is not already an Atwood fan.

Reference

Atwood, Margaret. The Heart Goes Last. McClelland & Steward, 2015.

Other things:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/23/the-heart-goes-last-margaret-atwood-review-novel

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/30/books/review-margaret-atwoods-the-heart-goes-last-conjures-a-kinky-dystopia.html?_r=0

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/in-the-heart-goes-last-atwood-delivers-a-serious-lesson-with-wit/article26540295/

http://www.npr.org/2015/10/01/444779993/the-heart-goes-last-is-a-swiftian-satire-of-imbeciles-in-the-apocalypse

Tuesday Night Ramblings: all over the place, really

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I am listening to Chopin nocturnes up in my room and feeling kind of blah… I won’t start boring you my readers with the multiple causes of that. Just let me say that sometimes the many uncontrollable events that make up daily life start crowding me in a bit too much, and seem to down out my attempts at keeping up a happy, upbeat outlook on things.

So let me dive back into to my fantasy worlds for a bit and give you an overview of what is going in Sylvie’s World (the part that really matters here!). I finally dove into the latest Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last, an avatar of her online Positron project. It was published on September 29 in Canada, around the time I got back from vacation. I promptly got a copy but things got busy and it had to wait until the beginning of November. My impression so far? It’s got funny moments, the plot is coming along quite swiftly, but… I don’t like the amount of profanity in it, the language is less “crafted” than I would expect from Margaret Atwood, and the world she constructs in this book is no match for the complex, textured universe of the Maddaddam trilogy. So I am a little disappointed. I even miss the pigoons. I had not read the online Positron stories, so I went into the book with little prior information, and I think, no preconceptions, but certainly high expectations. So, there, blah… I think I will have to concentrate on the satirical aspects a bit more and get a sense of where this book stands as social commentary.

I’ve also been reading a small book of poetry called La plaquette cubaine, a collection of poems by three authors, José Acquelin, Bertrand Laverdure, and Yannick Renaud. I’ve run into José Acquelin at a few events in the couple of years (he was at the FIPTR last month) and he won Governor General’s Award last year. He will be one of the special guest at the Salon du Livre de Montréal next month, so I will most likely hear some more from him. La plaquette cubaine was written by the three authors following their participation in a Québec/Cuba cultural festival in Havana in 2007, and published by Le lézard amoureux (small publishing house that does poetry). I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore near UQAM in downtown Montreal on an evening I decided to walk part of the way back home after work. When I do that, I always end up walking into bookstores on the way. I did that tonight as well by the way, but did not buy anything (that requires will power). I have Acquelin’s book that won the GG, Anarchie de la lumière, but I have yet to crack it open. The other work of poetry I am been “sipping”, is Colin Will’s The Propriety of Weeding, published by a small house from Northumberland in the UK called the Red Squirrel Press. I find the name of small publishers quite fascinating, especially the ones specializing in poetry.

Jane Austen’s Emma is the other novel that has been capturing my attention of late, but I am not sure that is ideal reading for the noise level in the metro. I am finding it quite a challenge to follow the convoluted, wordy and sometimes totally illogical conversations that Emma gets into with her relatives and friends, not to speak of the ones she unsuccessfully tries to prevent.

I have been perusing the latest issues of Lire magazine that cover the “rentrée littéraire” in France for both French authors and foreign authors in French translation, looking for what will strike my fancy to add to the TBR pile. More on that later in the week!

So, yes, there is all this reading going on. And I have started the NaNoWriMo challenge. So far, the word count is just below target, I have an outline of sorts, but it is quite conceptual and there is not really a plot. We will see where that goes. The idea might take better shape as I write. If anything, I might be able to rescue some of the material into short story form… or not. Oh wait, maybe I’ve got it wrong, that makes it sound like short stories are just failed attempts at something else, when they are really an art form in themselves… My main objective is really to get me to write more continuously than I have been doing with the blog, as well as to change my daily habits. Instead of getting out of bed in order to get ready to go to work in the morning, I get up to write and I go in to work a bit later. That is part of my trying to actually live the principle that I work to live, rather than live to work.

Per Olov Enquist, Le livre des paraboles (bilingual post! And not just about PO!)

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J’ai attendu avec impatience la publication d’une traduction du dernier livre de Per Olov Enquist. Il est sorti en suite en mars 2013. Pour la traduction française il a fallu attendre à l’automne 2014. J’avais même envoyé un mail à Actes Sud, la maison française qui publie PO, mais il était resté sans réponse… Mais là, ironiquement, ça m’a mis plusieurs mois à trouver le temps de le lire… Pourquoi? Peur d’être déçue? Je n’ai pas aimé le design de la page couverture? Allez donc savoir…

Enfin, là, je l’ai lu! Et quel livre! Avec le rythme haletant habituel de PO, une profusion de points d’exclamation! Et on en redemande! PO écrira-t-il encore, passé 80 ans?

Ce court livre se décline en neuf chapitres, neuf “paraboles”, où PO raconte (ou ne raconte pas, par quoi je veux dire qu’il fait plutôt des allusions obscurs aux faits, plutôt que de raconter de façon claire et non-équivoque) des parties de son histoire personnelle… des souvenirs d’enfance et d’adolescence. Il se pose beaucoup de questions sur ces origines, sur le sens de la vie, sur le sens de l’amour…

En fait, il nous dit avoir écrit un roman d’amour avec ce livre, après ne pas avoir pu le faire plus tôt, car que savait-il de l’amour et que pouvait-il en dire? Il y aussi la question de la loyauté aux êtres disparus, comme cette voisine d’un été, avec qui il fait la première expérience de l’amour physique (lors qu’il avait 15 ans et elle, 51; on remarqua la permutation) et qui lui demande de ne jamais en parler à personne. Peut-il en parler maintenant qu’elle est morte? S’agirait-il alors d’une trahison?

D’après son Cahier de travail il ne l’a rencontrée que trois fois.

La première fois, un dimanche après-midi en juillet 1949, c’est là qu’il emploie la désignation énigmatique “la femme sur le plancher sans noeuds”. La deuxième fois, le 22 août 1958 à Södertälje. La troisième fois, c’est en novembre 1977.

Apparemment, il avait promis de ne jamais en parler, à personne.

Mais tant d’années se sont écoulées, maintenant. Alors quelle importance.

PO nous dit aussi ressentir une plus grande liberté d’exprimer ce qu’il veut, comment il le veut, par le fait même d’être maintenant près de la rive du fleuve… c’est à dire près de la mort, près de la fin, et qu’on lui pardonnera bien de se sentir libre de dire ce qu’il veut.  L’expérience de l’approche de la mort le poursuit:

Soudain, en octobre 2011, hémorragie sévère.

Il regarde le plafond de l’ambulance, était-ce sérieux cette fois? Ce sont les boyaux des Enquist qui frappent finalement, à l’âge de soixante-dix-sept ans. Quelle ironie, lui qui fut tant de fois sur la voie. Deux opérations du coeur. L’estomac, ce trou que ces idiots de soignants ne retrouvaient pas. Jusqu’à maintenant! en octobre 2011!

Et tout ce qu’il n’avait pas eu le temps de faire! Comme l’Elof!

Il se remet de se problème de santé et la vie continue… Mais que faire de cette vie? Peut-il faire autre chose qu’écrire? Dans quelle mesure doit-il continuer à écrire, à offrir un témoignage? (Voir la vidéo sur YouTube)  Et en relation avec ce thème de l’écrivain et la mort, j’ai repensé à ce volume de Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead, que je n’avais pas vraiment aimé au moment de sa publication, mais qui tout d’un coup me semblait plus pertinent. Atwood says:

The title of this chapter is “Negotiating with the Dead,” and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.

You may find the subject a little peculiar. It is a little peculiar. Writing itself is a little peculiar.

So maybe PO is also fascinated with mortality, his own mortality, after being so close several times to crossing to the other side. He has said somewhere else that recovering from alcoholism has led him to consider the rest of his life as a sort of bonus (my interpretation, not his own words). Maybe also a bonus where he still has some responsibility to give something back.

In the preface to Negotiating with the Dead, Atwood explores this in more detail:

These are the three questions most often posed to writers, both by readers and by themselves: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? Where does it come from?

While I was writing these pages, I began compiling a list of answers to one of these questions – the question about motive. Some of these answers may appear to you to be more serious than others, but they are all real, and there is nothing to prevent a writer from being propelled by several of them at once, or indeed by all. They are taken from the words of writers themselves – retrieved from such dubious sources as newspaper interviews and autobiographies, but also recorded live from conversations in the backs of bookstores before the dreaded group signing, or between bites in cut-rate hamburger joints and tapas bars and other such writerly haunts, or in the obscure corners of receptions given to honor other, more prominent writers; but also from the words of fictional writers – all written of course by writers – though these are sometimes disguised in works of fiction as painters or composers or other artistic folk. Here then is the list:

To record the world as it is. To set down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. To delight and instruct (not often found after the early twentieth century, or not in that form). To please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art.  To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or – the Marquis de Sade defense, used by ironists – vice versa. To hold a mirror up to Nature. To hold a mirror up to the reader. To paint a portrait of society and its ills. To express the unexpressed life of the masses. To name the hitherto unnamed. To defend the human spirit, and human integrity and honor. To thumb my nose at Death. To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards. Because to create is human. Because to create is Godlike. Because I hated the idea of having a job. To say a new word. To  make a new thing. To create a national consciousness, or a national conscience. To justify my failures in school. To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn’t be “a writer” unless I actually did some writing. To make myself appear more interesting than I actually was. To attract the love of a beautiful woman. To attract the love of any woman at all. To attract the love of a beautiful man. To rectify the imperfections of my miserable childhood. To thwart my parents. To spin a fascinating tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time, even though it would have passed anyway. Graphomania. Compulsive logorrhea. Because I was driven to it by some force outside my control. Because I was possessed. Because an angel dictated it to me. Because I fell into the embrace of the Muse. Because I got pregnant by the Muse and needed to give birth to a book (an interesting piece of cross-dressing, indulged in by male writers of the seventeenth century). Because I had books instead of children (several twentieth-century women). To serve Art. To serve the Collective Unconscious. To serve History. To justify the ways of God toward man. To act out antisocial behavior for which I would have been punished in real life. To master a craft so I could generate texts (a recent entry). To subvert the establishment. To demonstrate that whatever is, is right. To experiment with new forms of perception. To create a recreational boudoir so the reader could go into it and have fun (translated from a Czech newspaper). Because the story took hold of me and wouldn’t let go (the Ancient Mariner defense). To search for understanding of the reader and myself. To cope with my depression. For my children. To make a name that would survive death. To defend a minority group or oppressed class. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To expose appalling wrongs or atrocities. To record the times throught which I have lived. To bear witness to horrifying events that I have survived. To speak for the dead. To celebrate life in all its complexity. To praise the universe. To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption. To give back something of what has been given to me.

Oomph… That was one long paragraph of sentence fragments.

P.O. Enquist ends his book with an ironic incident: While he attends the funeral of the woman who took his virginity, he gets a parking ticket! A parking ticket! Near the chapel!

While this book makes sense on its own, it probably makes even more sense after reading the previous memoir where PO talks a lot about his father (l’Elof!) and what saved him in the end (writing!).

Alors que PO semble particulièrement affectionner les points d’exclamations, moi c’est les points de suspension et les parenthèses (au cas où vous n’auriez jamais remarqué), quoiqu’il m’arrive souvent de réécrire une phrase pour éliminer les parenthèses (des fois, il y en a vraiment trop que je me perds moi-même dans la hiérarchie des propositions).

References:

Enquist, Per Olov. Le livre des paraboles. Actes Sud, 2014.

Enquist, Per Olov. Une autre vie. Actes Sud, 2010.

Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002.

Other things:

http://www.culturopoing.com/livres/per-olov-enquist-le-livre-des-paraboles/20140906

http://fathicharguiunblogfr.unblog.fr/2014/10/19/le-livre-des-paraboles-de-per-olov-enquist/

http://pierreahnne.eklablog.fr/le-livre-des-paraboles-un-roman-d-amour-per-olov-enquist-traduit-du-su-a114670282

Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress

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I am more of a novel reader, and only occasionally venture to read a collection of short stories, and usually only for a beloved writer. Margaret Atwood obviously qualifies, being my all time favorite writer, so I read her latest offering, Stone Mattress. Atwood’s writing very rarely displeases me (OK, I hated The Robber Bride but that is an exception) and that collection hit the mark in part because of its main theme, aging and its myriad indignities. Seven of the short stories highlight different aspects of the experience of aging, sometimes with a great deal of humor, if not outright fantasy. It’s bound to generate a few chuckles but also offers a great deal of food for thought: What place do we reserve for our elders in modern western society? What support is available to aging adults? How do families cope with the impact of aging on their elderly members? How do aging people think about and deal with their predicaments?

Here are some quick notes about what Atwood has to say on this topic in each of the 9 tales, as she calls them, which composed this collection.

  1. Alphinland: Constance, an elderly writer known for creating a fantasy world called Alphinland, battles loneliness and the elements with the elusive presence of her departed husband Ewan. Her expedition to the convenience store to get some salt for the front steps reveals her mobility limitations. She reminisces about her youth and a former lover called Gavin who was a poet.
  2. Revenant: We meet the elderly Gavin and his wife Reynolds. Reynolds has arranged an interview with a graduate student who wants to know about a certain period of Gavin’s life. To his great dismay, she really wants to know about this period because of his cohabitation with Constance in the 60s. He considers her work to be garbage and seems to resent that she has achieve a greater recognition than he has. As Gavin grows older, he is increasingly grumpy, resentful, and dissatisfied. He also feels bad that he cannot now give a better life to his much younger wife.

This isn’t what she signed up for when she married him. She most likely envisioned a fascinating life, filled with glamorous, creative people and stimulating intellectual chit-chat. And that did happen some, when they were first married; that, and the flare-up of his still active hormones. The last kaboom of the firecracker before it fizzled; but now she is stuck with the burnt-out aftermath. In his more lenient moments, he feels sorry for her.

  1. Dark Lady: Here we meet Marjorie, the elderly and cranky version of the lover that snatched Gavin from Constance. She drags her twin brother Tin (Martin) to Gavin’s funeral. After much discussion of what to wear, Marjorie looks sedate enough for Tin’s taste. Disaster strikes when she goes to the washroom and fixes her makeup.

She’s gone to town with the sparkly metallic bronzer, and on top of that she’s applied something else: a coating of large, glittering, golden flakes. She looks a like a sequined leather handbag. She must have smuggled these supplies in her purse; payback for his redaction of the shocking-pink Chanel. Of course she hasn’t been able to take in the full effect of her applications in the washroom mirror: she wouldn’t have been wearing her reading glasses.

The young graduate student is there to pay tribute to Gavin. She cannot believe her luck upon meeting both Constance and Marjorie.

Young Naveena can scarcely believe her luck. Her mouth’s half open, she’s biting the tips of her fingers, she’s holding her breath. She’s embedding us in amber, thinks Tin. Like ancient insects. Preserving us forever. In amber beads, in amber words. Right before our eyes.

  1. Lusus Naturae: The shortest tale in the book. Talks about a child who develops an illness that turns her into a hairy monster. Seemingly not connected to aging but… if one considers that the physical transformation described parallels physical aging, it does bring up the following question: Do the physical changes of aging change how we perceive the person? Do we value the transformed person less because of those changes? To what extent would be prefer to hide the changes, or even get rid of the now unsavory being?

What could be done with me, what should be done with me? These were the same question. The possibilities were limited. The family discussed them all, lugubriously, endlessly, as they sat around the kitchen table at night, with the shutters closed, eating their dry, whiskery sausages and their potato soup. If I was in one of my lucid phases I would sit with them, entering into the conversation as best I could while searching out the chunks of potato in my bowl. If not, I’d be off in the darkest corner, mewing to myself and listening to the twittering voices nobody else could hear.

It does sound like conversation about what to do with grandma… It does remind me of Fiona discussing her worsening dementia with her husband Grant in “Away from Her”, a short story by Alice Munro (that was turned into a wonderful movie by Sarah Polley).

  1. The Freeze-Dried Groom: An ambiguous end to a story about divorce furniture dealer who like to live on the edge. The groom was not supposed to die. It’s just that he liked rough sex involving strangulation. Still looking for a link with the rest…
  2. I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth: Atwood revisits the characters from The Robber Bride (oh no!), only they are now elderly and not necessarily wiser than when the evil Zenia stole their boyfriends way back when.
  3. The Dead Hand Loves You: Jack is broke and cannot pay his share of the rent. His roommates dare him to finish the gothic novel he is writing to make some money and pay his back rent. They draw up a contact that says they will each get a quarter of the royalties, which they do, for life, given the story is very successful and is turned into an also successful movie. Jack is fed up with this state of affairs which he considers unfair and hatches a plan to murder each of his former roommates. Rod is dying from pancreatic cancer, so he does not go through with the plan. Jaffrey’s divorce settlement from Irena gave her his share of the royalties, so there is no use killing him. As for Irena, she reveals she was always in love with him and the contract had been a way to stay in touch all these years. He decides to give her a chance.

There. He’s taken the plunge, but the plunge into what? Jack, be nimble, he tells himself. Avoid traps. She may be too much for you, not to mention crazy. Don’t make mistakes. But how much time does he have left in his life to worry about mistakes?

  1. Stone Mattress: An elderly woman goes on an Arctic cruise. She runs into a man who raped her when she was a teenager. She decides to murder him, hatches a plot and successfully carried it out during an on-shore excursion.

Here comes Bob as if on cue, lumbering slowly as a zombie up the hill towards her. He’s taken off his outer jacket, tucked it under his backpack straps. He’s out of breath. She has a moment of compunction: he’s over the hill; frailty is gaining on him. Shouldn’t she let bygones be bygones? Boys will be boys. Aren’t they all just hormones puppets at that age? Why should any human being be judged y something that was done in another time, so long ago it might be centuries?

But no, she does go ahead.

  1. Torching the Dusties: A nursing home is besieged by a throng that is calling for doing away with all elderly people, as they are parasites of modern society. Wilma, who suffers from macular degeneration (and sees pretty funny things, believe me), depends on her friend Tobias to help her out so she preserves a modicum of independence. Every night Tobias walks her back from the dining room after dinner.

Outside her apartment they exchange their standard peck on the cheek, and Wilma listens while he limps away down the hall. Is this regret she’s feeling? Is this a fluttering of ancient warmth? Does she really want him to enfold her in his stringy arms, make his way in towards her skin through the Velcro and zippers, attempt some ghostly, creaky, arthropod-like reprise of an act he must have committed effortlessly hundred, indeed thousands of times in the past? No.

On the question of the place of the elderly in society, I keep remembering the Quietus in Children of Men by P.D. James, which were essentially mass suicides for the elderly… Another dystopian take on what to do with the old.

And on the “creaky reprise”, I remember a description by Benoîte Groulx, the French author, of the difficulties of getting in and out of her sailboat at 70 or 80, I am not sure I remember the age, but none of it was very graceful. But she felt alive doing it, and that’s what matters.

I thought that Gabriel García Márquez proposed a more positive view of aging and love in old age in Love in the Time of Cholera though. Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University, reflects on “keeping the heart alive” throughout life in Morning, Noon & Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books:

Cardiologists play their little role in the life of the aging, for we know that the heart is a muscle and blood-supply system increasingly subject to wear and tear. Is this not the case morally and psychologically as well? Can the old maintain their emotional vibrancy and élan right to the end? In some sense, all the prior discussions of growing old revolve around these basic questions, whether we emphasize the sexual, the somatic, or the spiritual side of things. Perhaps the most frightening fate that could await us is to die while still living, to cease to feel or to care about the lives around us.

Atwood shows us some people who do seem to have slipped into this dead-alive mode, but other do frantically fight against that slippery slope with all their might.

Of course, I don’t want to give it all away, there are layers and layers to peel away as you read… Atwood can be quite relentless in her unsentimental take on old age, but none of it is really overly exaggerated. There is so much we don’t see until it stares us in the face.

References:

Atwood, Margaret. Stone Mattress. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2014.

Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 1993.

Munro, Alice. Away From Her. Penguin Canada: Toronto, 2007. (Movie tie-in edition, originally published in 2001 as Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage)

James, P.D. Children of Men. 1992.

García Márquez, Gabriel. El amor en el tiempo del cholera. Penguin Books: New York, 1985.

Weinstein, Arnold. Morning, Noon & Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. Random House: New York, 2011.

And other things:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/margaret-atwoods-stone-mattress-is-wise-sharp-timely-and-self-aware/article20575769/

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/24/348709868/margaret-atwoods-stone-mattress-is-full-of-sharp-and-jabbing-truths

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/12/book-review-stone-mattress-nine-tales-margaret-atwood

http://www.paperplatesblog.com/blog/stone-mattress-by-margaret-atwood-frozen-mocha-brownie-bites

http://leilarice.blogspot.ca/2014/10/review-of-stone-mattress-by-margaret.html

Ursula K. Le Guin’s review: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/fe6f7aa4-3822-11e4-a687-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3G0DaouAh

Margaret Atwoodd and Madd Addam

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I was really looking forward to this book, in part because of the cool title and in part because Margaret Atwood is my all-time favorite author. This book was a delight to read. I am not sure it would completely make sense to those who have not first read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, in spite of the synopses given at the beginning of Madd Addam. The book jacket calls this series “speculative fiction”, as if not all fiction was speculative, but I would call it right out “science fiction”. It is very much about scientific manipulations gone wrong.

First, Crake creates a new human race with slightly different characteristics from homo sapiens. They get referred to as the “Crakers”. They are gently and helpful, can communicate with other life forms in ways human beings cannot, do not know jealousy or hatred, and have no taste for violence. It makes them vulnerable to manipulation because of their trusting nature. One of their most endearing features is their ability to purr, which they use to comfort others when they are unhappy or ill. This purring makes others feel better. They also love to sing but their singing is described as eerie and somewhat annoying to humans. Hence, we find this series of statements, often repeated in the book:

Please stop singing.

Please don’t sing yet.

Please don’t sing.

You do not have to sing.

These injunctions usually appear as single-sentence paragraphs so they really stand out. It gets to be really funny. The Crakers like to sing to express emotion, to comfort themselves and others, to celebrate meaningful moments. In fact, they like to sing a lot. They are also very gullible and do not understand irony and figures of speech. A lot of the humor in the book comes from misunderstandings between humans and Crakers. As a scientific experiment, the Crakers do not seem to be the future of human kind, even though they were conceived as an improvement.

Second, most the human population gets wiped out by an invisible plague. This happens in The Year of the Flood. In Madd Addam, we find out about one mechanism used to disseminate the plague agent, which was to include it in another seemingly innocuous pharmaceutical product.

Third, genetically engineered life forms that appear in the trilogy are usually more threatening than useful, such as giant pigoons (my spell-checker keeps wanting to change that to pigeons), wolvogs, and liobams. Only the dumb and cuddly rakunk is used as a pet. In the end though, the humans create an alliance with the giant pigoons with the help of a Craker interpreter in order to rid the area of two hardened murderers that are threatening them.

As speculative fiction, the book is a thought-experiment about how people can deal with crisis situations and survival in a harsh and unpredictable environment. The survivors should a great deal of resilience and survive through collaboration and altruism. If there is to be an overarching moral theme to this book, it may be that one can survive almost anything, but that one does not survive alone. And not without humor.

 

Margaret Atwood and Flying Rabbits

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In the first chapter of In Other Worlds, Margaret Atwood explores the worlds of superheroes and describes their outfits (from capes to skin-tight suits). She also discusses the notion of double identities or how superheroes are often “in real life” quite ordinary, to transform themselves in their superhero persona when they are needed. She also wonders about the ability to fly, which is often link to setting the story in a different universe where the laws of physics as we know them no longer apply.

One note to this chapter is particularly funny:

Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1891) presents a race of superior human beings who live in a vast cavern underground, harnessing an inner, electrical life force called vril for power. (Vril gave its name to the beef tea “Bovril”; bovine vril.) The Vril-ya fly around on vril-powered wings and display super-intelligence; the women among them are bigger and stronger than the men, whom they have to treat well lest the latter fly away. (page 36)

So there you go in case you were wondering where Bovril came from.

Reference:

Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds : SF and the Human Imagination. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2011.

The Latest Margaret Atwood: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, the Ellmann Lectures

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The first three chapters of In Other Worlds are the lectures given by Margaret Atwood at Emory University, on the occasion of the Ellmann Lectures (http://www.emory.edu/ellmann/). They do not constitute an exhaustive review of the development of science-fiction as a genre but are a series of personal remarks on science-fiction and speculative fiction she has read as a child and as an adult. She also relates this to debates about what works can really be considered literature and while science-fiction may long have been considered low-brow rather than high-brow, it is not without literary interest.

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, through a doorway into the spirit worlds, 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 them might be placed under the same large “wonder tale” umbrella. (page 8)

The lectures have three parts: Flying Rabbits (about superheroes), Burning Bushes (about the influence of ancient mythologies), and finally, Dire Cartographies (about utopias and dystopias) where she makes explicit links with her own three dystopian novels.

It is interesting that Atwood’s references in science-fiction/speculative fiction differ from mine quite a lot. I would not necessarily admit to her being better than me, but certainly “differently” read… which may be a product of my teenage-years reading having been done mostly in French with the stock of French-language sci-fi available in the municipal library. What I find particularly illuminating in her book are the references to mythology.

Reference:

Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds : SF and the Human Imagination. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2011.

The Latest Margaret Atwood: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a quick preview

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It is no secret: Margaret Atwood is my all-time favorite writer. I own all of her novels (one is autographed), a lot of her short fiction, some poetry and some of her essay publications (yes that is a lot of shelf space in a small house). I absolutely totally fell in love with her writing when I was 17, after reading a poem called “The Red Shirt”, or rather after hearing my English teacher (one Brian or Bryan Doubt, wherever he is these days) read it out loud to the class. It was my first semester in English school, my very first English literature class (poetry, no less, I’ve always loved a challenge). Later that year, I stumbled upon Life Before Man in the school library and the rest is history.

Don’t expect to find a critical review of this book on this blog. I have no ability whatsoever to be critical when I read Margaret Atwood.

I have also been an avid consumer of all sorts of science fiction, as well at utopian and dystopian literature, especially in high school and during a part of my doctoral studies (escapism is definitely involved here). So what better treat than to read Atwood on SF and all manners of imaginary worlds?

More to come on this topic…

Reference:

Atwood, Margaret. In Other Worlds : SF and the Human Imagination. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, 2011.

 

A long, painful summer in Stockholm (in a short, interesting novel by Hjalmar Söderberg)

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Doctor Glas, a short novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, tells the story of three months in the life of a young Stockholm doctor. Interestingly enough, there is a Canadian connection here, as the introduction was written by Margaret Atwood.

Dr. Glas feels down because he has never had a woman in his life (he repeated laments that life has passed him by), and life suddenly gets more complicated when he decides to take steps to make one woman’s life happier. The women in question, Mrs. Gregorius, comes to him complaining about the unwanted sexual activities her husband imposes on her. Dr. Glas councels Mr. Gregorius, a old pastor which Margaret Atwood compares to a troll, to slow down on sex on account of some heart problems. This provides some temporary relief to poor Mrs. Gregorius. She happens to have a lover on the side but that is not that important in the end. What does happen in the end is that Dr. Glas murders the poor pastor in order to free Mrs. Gregorius. He never does really find out her fate following her husband’s demise.

The form that this novel takes is that of an intimate journal, one that the doctor is constantly afraid should be found since it contains incriminating evidence of his involvement in the pastor’s death.

In the Introduction, Margaret Atwood states that “The uproar around Doctor Glas stemmed from the perception that it was advocating abortion and euthanasia, and was perhaps even rationalizing murder.”

In the beginning of the book, Dr. Glas write the following in his journal:

Now I sit at my open window, writing – for whom? Not for any friend or mistress. Scarcely for myself, even. I do not read today what I wrote yesterday; nor shall I read this tomorrow. I write simply so my hand can move, my thoughts move of their own accord. I write to kill a sleepless hour. Why can’t I sleep? After all, I’ve committed no crime.

Certainly, this anticipates will comes later in the novel. A sense of alienation and a deep-seated loneliness, but also the committing of a crime. The sense of depression that settles on Dr. Glas in the end, brought on by comparison to the effect of autumn on nature, may lead to yet more irreversible decisions.

Reference:

Söderberg, Hjalmar, Doctor Glas, Anchor Books, New York, 1991. (originally published in Swedish in 1905)