Thursday, November 19, 2009

Friday Fiction: Margaret Atwood

--by Hanje Richards

Over the years, I have had an on-again-off-again thing about Margaret Atwood, but I notice today, as I prepare this blog post, that in addition to the books I haven’t gotten to yet (including her new novel, The Year of the Flood), I may want to re-read some of her work a second time around.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author, poet, critic, essayist, feminist and social campaigner. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General's Award seven times, winning twice. While she may be best known for her work as a novelist, she is also an award-winning poet, having published 15 books of poetry to date.

The Copper Queen Library owns Atwood’s most recent novel: The Year of the Flood. This book is a sequel to Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s 2003 dystopian novel. In Year..., the times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners — a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life — has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God's Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.

Alias Grace: Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or the victim of circumstances?

Blind Assassin: The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

Bluebeard’s Eggs and Other Stories: Glows with childhood memories, the reality of parents growing old, and the casual cruelty men and women inflict on each other. Here is the familiar outer world of family summers at remote lakes, winters of political activism, and seasons of exotic friends, mundane lives, and unexpected loves. But here, too, is the inner world of hidden places and all that emerges from them — the intimately personal, the fantastic, the shockingly real...whether it's what lives in a mysterious locked room or the secret feelings we all conceal.

Bodily Harm: The story of Rennie Wilford, a young journalist whose life has begun to shatter around the edges. Rennie flies to the Caribbean to recuperate, and on the tiny island of St. Antoine, she is confronted by a world where her rules for survival no longer apply. By turns comic, satiric, relentless, and terrifying, Bodily Harm is ultimately an exploration of the lust for power, both sexual and political, and the need for compassion that goes beyond what we ordinarily mean by love.

Handmaid’s Tale: A gripping vision of our society radically overturned by a theocratic revolution, this novel has become one of the most powerful and most widely read of our time.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of the enigmatic Commander and his bitter wife. She may go out once a day to markets whose signs are now pictures because women are not allowed to read. She must pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, for in a time of declining birthrates, her value lies in her fertility, and failure means exile to the dangerously polluted Colonies. Offred can remember a time when she lived with her husband and daughter and had a job, before she lost even her own name. Now she navigates the intimate secrets of those who control her every move, risking her life in breaking the rules.

Lady Oracle: Joan Foster is the bored wife of a myopic ban-the-bomber. She takes off overnight as Canada's new superpoet, pens lurid gothics on the sly, attracts a blackmailing reporter, skids cheerfully in and out of menacing plots, hair-raising traps, and passionate trysts, and lands dead and well in Terremoto, Italy. In this remarkable, poetic, and magical novel, Atwood proves yet again why she is considered to be one of the most important and accomplished writers of our time.

Moral Disorder: Stories: This collection of short stories follows the life of a single character, seen as a girl growing up the 1930s, a young woman in the '50s and '60s, and, in the present day, half of a couple, no longer young, reflecting on the new state of the world. Each story focuses on the ways relationships transform a character’s life: a woman’s complex love for a married man, the grief upon the death of parents and the joy with the birth of children, the realization of what growing old with someone you love really means. By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal.

Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems: These short fictions and prose poems are beautifully bizarre: bread can no longer be thought of as wholesome comforting loaves; a poisonous brew is concocted by cynical five year olds; and knowing when to stop is of deadly importance in a game of Murder in the Dark.

Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing: What do we mean when we say that someone is a writer? Is he or she an entertainer? A high priest of the god Art? An improver of readers’ minds and morals? And who, for that matter, are these mysterious readers? In this wise and irresistibly quotable book, one of the most intelligent writers now working in English addresses the riddle of her art: why people pursue it, how they view their calling, and what bargains they make with their audience, both real and imagined.

To these fascinating issues, Atwood brings a candid appraisal of her own experience as well as a breadth of reading that encompasses everything from Dante to Elmore Leonard. An ambitious artistic inquiry conducted with unpretentiousness and charm, Negotiating with the Dead is an unprecedented insider’s view of the writer’s universe.

Robber Bride: Inspired by "The Robber Bridegroom," a wonderfully grisly tale from the Brothers Grimm in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair and devours them, one by one. In her version, Atwood recasts the monster as Zenia, a villainess of demonic proportions, and sets her loose in the lives of three friends, Tony, Charis, and Roz. All three "have lost men, spirit, money, and time to their old college acquaintance, Zenia. At various times, and in various emotional disguises, Zenia has insinuated her way into their lives and practically demolished them.

Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986: Celebrated as a major novelist throughout the English-speaking world, Atwood has also written several volumes of poetry. This book features her poetry from 1976 through 1986.

Surfacing: Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices.

The Tent: Here, Atwood pushes form once again, with meditations on warlords, pet heaven, and aging homemakers. She gives a sly pep talk to the ambitious young; writes about the disconcerting experience of looking at old photos of ourselves; and examines the boons and banes of orphanhood. Accompanied by her own playful illustrations, Atwood’s droll humor and keen insight make each piece full of clarity and grace. Prescient and personal, delectable and tart, The Tent reflects one of our wittiest authors at her best.

Wilderness Tips: In each of these tales, Atwood deftly illuminates the single instant that shapes a whole life: in a few brief pages, we watch as characters progress from the vulnerabilities of adolescence through the passions of youth into the precarious complexities of middle age. By superimposing the past on the present, Atwood paints interior landscapes shaped by time, regret, and life's lost chances, endowing even the banal with a sense of mystery. Richly layered and disturbing, poignant at times and scathingly witty at others, the stories in Wilderness Tips take us into the strange and secret places of the heart and inform the familiar world in which we live with truths that cut to the bone.

As always, if the book you are looking for is currently checked out, you can put a hold on it so when it does become available, you will be notified.