Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1422: #MARM Margaret Atwood Reading Month—The Testaments

I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to read The Testaments. I had heard conflicting opinions. More importantly, I felt that The Handmaid’s Tale was just about a perfect book that didn’t need a sequel. The Testaments ended up co-winning the Booker Prize, though, so I had to read it for my project, and I also decided to read it in time for Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

The novel is narrated in documents: testimonies, a hologram hidden in a library, and finally the text of a lecture. The major narrators are Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of Gilead; Agnes, a girl raised in Gilead; and a younger girl named Daisy raised in Canada.

Aunt Lydia is busy recording a secret document telling tales of corruption by the leaders of Gilead. Her narrative takes us back to the founding of Gilead, when she, a judge, and all the professional working women were rounded up and “tested” for their ability to move forward. Agnes tells about how her protected childhood was destroyed by the death of her mother, the discovery that her actual mother was a handmaid, and the advent of her stepmother. At 13, she is to be forced into a marriage with Commander Judd, a much older man who has had many young wives who have all died. Daisy begins to find out secrets about herself after her parents are killed in an explosion.

So, what did I think of this novel? Well, Atwood always knows how to capture and keep her readers’ attentions. The book is fast moving and well written and should make many of the television program’s followers happy, which is its purpose. Did I change my mind about a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? Not really, especially since it does its job in a way that is so often predictable. I also felt that the final chapter was very weak. Atwood has tied everything up nicely, but sometimes I prefer ambiguity. So, a mixed review from me, even though overall it was a good book.

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Day 981: Hag-Seed

Cover for Hag-SeedHag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of The Tempest, a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. It is inventively plotted and cleverly reimagines the events and characters of the play.

Felix wants revenge. Years ago, he was at the pinnacle of his career, director of the Makeshiweg Festival, presenting The Tempest. He was known for his avante garde approaches to theatre. But while he was occupied with the play, he let his assistant Tony deal with the other points of business. In his turn, Tony plotted with Sal O’Nally, the Heritage Minister, to remove him from his job. Making matters worse, Felix’s young daughter Miranda had died a few years before.

Felix has been leading a retired life in a rustic cottage in the country. Several years ago, he took a job with a program at a local prison. Each year, he stages a Shakespeare play staffed and acted by the prisoners. It has become very popular, and the prisoners’ literacy scores have increased.

But Felix is mostly alone with only his fantasy daughter for company.

One year, Felix hears that several ministers, including Sal and Tony, will attend the prison on the day of the broadcast of the play. Their real intent, he hears, is to shut down the program, despite its success. Felix decides this year’s play will be The Tempest, and through the play, he will get his revenge.

link to NetgalleyI thought Atwood’s approach to this retelling was much more inventive than the other reworkings I have recently read, and I found the novel entertaining. Its revenge plot didn’t really grab me, though. I didn’t like Felix very much, although he gets more likable as the novel progresses. It was clever to combine the Caliban and Prospero roles into one for this book. Certainly, readers familiar with Atwood will recognize her acerbic writing style. Not to get to the point where I thought he was a real person, but I also thought his teaching methods were really creative, and the production sounded as if it would be good.

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Day 784: The Heart Goes Last

Cover for The Heart Goes LastStan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.

Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.

On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.

Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.

This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.

link to NetgalleyThe Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.

Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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Day 667: Alias Grace

Cover for Alias GraceBest Book of the Week!
Most of what I have read by Margaret Atwood has been futuristic and dystopian, so I was quite surprised to find that Alias Grace is an apparently straightforward historical novel. But then, nothing with Atwood is exactly straightforward.

The novel is based on a notorious Canadian murder, in which two servants were found guilty of murdering their master and his paramour housekeeper. The man was hanged, but there continued to be debate about the extent of the guilt of the woman, Grace Marks.

The novel begins some years after the event, when Dr. Simon Jordan, studying new discoveries in the field of mental illness, is hired by a group trying to gain Grace a pardon. Grace has always claimed she cannot remember the crimes, and he hopes to revive her memory. He begins in a way meant to slyly nudge a modern sense of humor, by bringing her an apple followed by a series of root vegetables he hopes will remind her of a cellar, where the bodies were discovered.

Grace, who was very young at the time of the crime, eventually tells him what she can remember, beginning with her early life. She relates her story in a simple way, conveying the persona of a proper young girl.

Dr. Jordan appears as if he is going to be the hero of this novel, but he has his own obsessions and difficulties.

As Grace tells her story, we are drawn slowly in, waiting to learn what really happened. This novel is rich in detail and beautifully written, but it is also slyly humorous and dark.

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Day 603: Stone Mattress

Cover for Stone MattressMargaret Atwood describes Stone Mattress as a collection of tales, and several of them are characteristic of wonder tales or amazing tales of decades ago. In the title story, for example, a woman meets a man on a cruise to the Antarctic who years ago ruined her life. When he does not recognize her much older self, she begins plotting his murder.

All of the stories are about characters in their older years. The first three are linked. In “Alphinland,” Constance, the author of a popular fantasy series, copes with the aftermath of an ice storm and listens to advice from her dead husband as she considers her earlier life, particularly Gavin, an old lover who was cruel to her. In “Revenant,” Gavin’s wife Reynolds tries to cope with her difficult poet husband. She has a bit of revenge by setting him up with an interview with a graduate student who only wants to know about his relationship with Constance. In “Dark Lady,” Jorrie, the woman who long ago was the cause of Constance and Gavin’s break-up, asks her twin brother to go along with her to Gavin’s funeral.

http://www.netgalley.comSome of the stories are more fantastic, such as “Lusus Naturae,” about a woman whose family has hidden her away for years because of her appearance and a thirst for blood. Many of them reflect a concern for the environment and a dark sense of humor. All are well written. This collection is a perfect one for people who want to experience a light and entertaining dose of Atwood.

Day 593: Maddaddam

Cover for MaddaddamBest Book of the Week!
Maddaddam is the final book in Margaret Atwood’s funny, cruel, and profound Maddaddam trilogy. At the beginning of the novel, all of the remnants of the Gardeners cult and the Maddaddam hackers have teamed up to try to survive the horrendous conditions post-Waterless Flood together. Ren and Toby, the main characters of The Year of the Flood, have managed to rescue Amanda from the vicious Painballers. They have also found Jimmy and the Crakers, from Oryx and Crake. The two groups of survivors are worried about the two remaining Painballers and incursions from the pigoons on their garden. They are also searching for Adam One, the leader of the Gardeners.

This novel again returns to the time of the other two, providing a look at events from the point of view of Zeb. Zeb has been a mysterious presence in both books, returning periodically to the Gardeners and going off again. Toby is so happy to see him after the long isolation following the Waterless Flood that she uncharacteristically bursts into tears. The story moves forward as Zeb, now Toby’s lover, tells her about his life with his brother Adam.

The novel is humorously punctuated with the stories Toby is telling to the Crakers. As Snowman-the-Jimmy is sick for the first part of the novel, Toby reluctantly takes up his role as the interpreter of the Crakers’ origins. She also befriends a young Craker boy named Blackbeard.

Maddaddam is touching and exciting, building to a battle between the surviving decent humans and the Painballers, with one side making an unlikely alliance with the clever pigoons, pigs with human DNA that were created during the manic gene-splicing days of the large drug companies. The aftermath of the battle is touchingly related by Blackbeard.

This trilogy is a profound one, about the evils of greed and rampant corruption, the perils of climate change, and the madness of one man who felt that the only solution was to wipe humans from the face of the earth and replace them with a gentler species. The third book is also about a group who understood where everything was going and did their best to save some of the people.

This series is great.

Day 557: The Year of the Flood

Cover for The Year of the FloodThe Year of the Flood covers much the same time period as does the first novel of the Maddaddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, only from the points of view of different characters. What the two main characters of this novel have in common is the Gardeners, an ecological religious cult.

Years ago, Toby was a pleeblander attending a mediocre college until one of the Corporations wanted her father’s land. After her father’s questionable suicide, Toby destroyed her identity and got along as best she could in the margins of society. When she found herself captive in an abusive relationship with a thug named Blanco, her friend Rebecca and the Gardeners came to her rescue. At the beginning of the novel, though, Toby is living alone in the Anoo Yoo spa after the Waterless Flood, long predicted by the Gardeners.

Ren lived in the elite Compounds where her father was a drug industry worker until her mother ran off with Zeb, a Gardener, taking Ren with her. She spent most of her childhood with the Gardeners until her mother split from Zeb and moved back to the Compounds, claiming to be a kidnapping victim. Ren is in isolation at the sex club where she works when the Waterless Flood occurs. Being locked away from others saves her from the plague.

Both women find they must leave their sanctuaries and venture out into a deadly world, the unintended consequence of the madness of Crake.

The Year of the Flood provides more insight about the events leading up to the Flood and the identities of the group calling themselves Maddaddam. The novel is ironically punctuated by the homilies of Adam One, leader of the Gardeners, and by Gardener hymns.

This novel is fascinating, full of sly humor and an incredible inventiveness. I can’t wait to read Maddaddam.

Day 516: Oryx and Crake

Cover for Oryx and CrakeBest Book of the Week!
Snowman may be the last human left on earth after the plague. He is not alone, though, because nearby is a race of human-like beings that his friend Crake bioengineered. Snowman himself lives like a vagrant—wearing nothing but a sheet in the unbearable heat from global warming, scrounging through the detritus of a lost civilization for food.

Snowman soon realizes that he will starve if he doesn’t return to the compounds for food. Not long before, he lived in a world where the privileged workers for the biochemical industry and their families lived apart in their own secure compounds. The other people, called pleeblanders, could fend for themselves. Gene splicing to create new species was rampant without regard for any consequences, and greed and consumerism all-important.

As Snowman makes his journey, he recalls his childhood with an embittered mother and oblivious father and his long friendship with Crake. Most fondly he remembers Oryx, the love of his life. Through these memories we learn how the world got into this dire situation.

This novel is both inventive and absorbing. Although Atwood’s descriptions of the pre-plague world with its abominations of nature seem comic at times, they are still horribly believable. This is dark humor with a knife edge about a world that has lost its sanity.

Oryx and Crake is the first of a trilogy, and I am looking forward to reading the other two volumes.

Day Thirteen: The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover for The Handmaid's TaleWhen I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale back in the 80s, I believe my reaction was that the Canadian author might be over-reacting to the rise in American religious fundamentalism, although that also made it fairly scary reading. Not only does the novel translate well into this century, it is even more effective and foreboding in a time when hard-won civil and reproductive rights are being abrogated, education is being dumbed down and tampered with (as we know who have to fight the “intelligent design” battle every two years), and fundamentalism of all kinds is on the rise. Everyone should read or re-read this book.

Atwood presents the story skillfully. It is from the point of view of one person, the handmaid, as she struggles with her everyday life but remembers her previous one–one that we would consider normal. Instead of explaining what happened, she muses about her life as her thoughts come to her and as things happen, so it takes us awhile to understand what is going on. More than 20 years later, I still remember my horror when I realized the handmaid’s function in this dystopian society.

All we understand at first is that the handmaid lives in a rigid, stratified society in what used to be the U.S. in the not-too-distant future. It is a time of war, and there are terrifying checkpoints everywhere. All women are forced to wear uniforms in specific colors that indicate their station and function, and hers is red. She is treated as an outcast, and almost her every action is supervised. It takes us awhile to figure out that she lives in a theocracy, the laws of which were made as an apparent backlash against the successes in the late 19th century of women’s rights. In a foreword to the version I read, Atwood says that she purposefully didn’t include anything in the book that people have not already done to each other, which makes a statement in itself.

The novel is beautifully written. Although education for women is against the law, the handmaid was educated in her previous life, and constantly plays with language as she muses.

Read in the current climate, some of the themes and statements in this book will send a chill down your spine.