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My Month of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors. I don’t remember exactly when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, probably in a high school English class, but I remember that reading that book changed my life. It was one of those books that helped me understand something fundamental about what literature can do (use an extreme premise or situation to comment on contemporary political issues). Looking back, I also love the way The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that sits between the two subjects that Atwood writes about best — political dystopia and female friendship.

When I go to used bookstores, I always check the “A” section to see if there are any Atwood books that I haven’t purchased yet. I’m trying to collect them all (book nerd Pokémon?) and I have quite a few, but I tend to dole them out slowly — one or two a year, at most. I like saving them because when I pick one up I know it’s going to be wonderful, and I want the wonderful to last as long as it possibly can.

However, my careful Atwood rationing fell apart over the last month. I read four of her books between the end of August and the end of September, and it was just as amazing as I hoped that it would be.

The Atwood binge started when I decided to take some time to read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood in anticipation of the third book in that trilogy, Maddaddam, which came out in September. The premise of the series is relatively simple, although it takes several books to really flesh out. I’ll just give you the summary of Oryx and Crake to try and avoid some spoilers:

Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.

The structure of Oryx and Crake — a structure that gets echoed in all three books of the trilogy — is so great. The book jumps back and forth between the time after the plague and the events leading up to the plague, and you get a very slow reveal of how everything went down. I was completely surprised about how this book turned out and it was wonderful even on a second read. The book is also really disconcerting because so much of what is going on — genetic modifications, environmental destruction, separation of rich and poor in protected compounds — doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility given what is happening in the world today.

The Year of the Flood is one of the rare cases when the a second in a trilogy book is even better than the first. Atwood has called The Year of the Flood a companion to Oryx and Crake — the events take place over the same time period, just in a different place and different characters. In this case, the main characters are Ren (a trapeze dancer at a high-end sex club) and Toby (a manager at a luxury spa with a mysterious past), two women who have connections to Jimmy and Crake and who also survived the plague.

What was remarkable about The Year of the Flood, to me, is the way that Atwood is able to open up the world these stories are set in. The first book is centered entirely on Jimmy’s limited perspective, while the second goes outside the protected compounds and away from scientists to show how their decisions affected people out in the real world. It’s so smart and interesting.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the third book in a trilogy, Maddaddam, brings the two story threads together and expands the story out in several more directions. I won’t say more about it than that, other than that I thought it was a deeply satisfying conclusion to the story that Atwood set up at the beginning of the trilogy, but left enough open to leave the world a little mysterious. I loved it to death and absolutely recommend taking time to read all three books.

My fourth Margaret Atwood book for the month was Cat’s Eye, which I selected for a book club I suggested when a group of high school girlfriends and I got together for a long weekend at a cabin in Wisconsin. Cat’s Eye is, I think, a book along the other spectrum of stories that Atwood writes — explorations of female friendship and issues in feminism:

Cat’s Eye is the story of Elaine Risley, a controversial painter who returns to Toronto, the city of her youth, for a retrospective of her art. Engulfed by vivid images of the past, she reminisces about a trio of girls who initiated her into the fierce politics of childhood and its secret world of friendship, longing, and betrayal. Elaine must come to terms with her own identity as a daughter, a lover, an artist, and a woman–but above all she must seek release from her haunting memories.

While I’m not sure if I liked Cat’s Eye as much as I enjoyed the Maddaddam trilogy — it got a little meandering in the middle and I didn’t find the conclusion entirely satisfying — it was still a remarkable book, and perfect for the situation we read it. Elaine is a flawed and complicated narrator, and it’s interesting to look at how her memories (or lack of memories) affect how we see her and the girls that bullied her as a child. It’s a book about complicated friendships that I loved digging into with some of my oldest friends.

Given how much I’ve enjoyed all of the books in my Margaret Atwood binge, I’m tempted to keep the streak going and read several more of her books before the end of the year. But I also want to keep hording them, just to know that I have more amazing books to read for the first time when I need a literary pick-me-up. I love Margaret Atwood!

Do you have a favorite author you’re deliberately reading slowly? A favorite Atwood book? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Heather October 16, 2013, 5:24 am

    The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye are my two favorite Atwood novels. I read THT when I was 13, and it was a life-changer of sorts for me, too–I was raised by a feminist, but THT really opened my eyes to what it is to be a woman. That was my first Atwood novel, and I immediately fell in love with her writing.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading October 16, 2013, 5:34 am

    Book nerd Pokemon! I have so much Atwood still to read, but you made me want to get on it right now. I love that you read so much of her work in one month, that seems like the best way to do it.

    • Kim October 16, 2013, 7:51 pm

      I’m torn. On the one hand, I loved reading that series all in a row. On the other hand, I like saving her books up to grab when I need something I know I’ll love.

  • Tanya Patrice October 16, 2013, 5:53 am

    I’m having a Stephen KIng reading binge at the moment, but I can easily see that happening with Atwood too. The trilogy is something on my reading list that I hope to get to soon.

  • Alise October 16, 2013, 7:29 am

    I read Handmaid’s Tale for the first time last year. First Atwood I’ve ever read and I loved it. I’d love to read more of her work. What would you recommend as her best after Handmaid’s Tale? Or even better than that classic?

    • Kim October 16, 2013, 7:53 pm

      Oh man, that’s tough! My favorite Atwood is The Blind Assassin, but it’s a little strange. I also loved The Robber Bride.

  • Kelly from Readlately.com October 16, 2013, 9:07 am

    I’ve never read her! I’m not sure dystopian fiction is really my thing…

    • Kim October 16, 2013, 7:53 pm

      Atwood does some great (but still a little dark) books that are more realistic, The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye, for example.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge October 16, 2013, 9:52 am

    I love Atwood as well, though I find have to be in the right mood for her books. I’m fascinated by her themes and definitely need to read more. I have Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace on my shelves right now.

  • Rebecca @ Love at First Book October 16, 2013, 11:04 am

    I need to read the rest of the trilogy – I’ve only read O&C! But I’m a huge fan of Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale is my fav book of all time, and I’m slowly working my way through all of her books.

  • Danielle October 16, 2013, 11:10 am

    I haven’t read Margaret Atwood, should I start with The Handmaid’s Tale? I love themed reading, so your month of Margaret Atwood is so awesome!!

    • Kim October 16, 2013, 7:54 pm

      I think The Handmaid’s Tale is a great place to start — it’s an amazing book.

  • Christina October 16, 2013, 5:50 pm

    A month of Atwood sounds wonderful! I’ve read Oryx and Crake, which wasn’t a book I loved, but I consider The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace to be two of my favorite books. I would love to read more of her books soon.

    • Kim October 16, 2013, 7:54 pm

      I’m excited to read Alias Grace soon. I think that’s going to be my next Atwood.

  • Athira October 16, 2013, 6:23 pm

    I am yet to read an Atwood book. I have her Year of the Flood on my shelf but I didn’t realize that it was part of a trilogy. I will have to get the first book soon!

  • Christine October 16, 2013, 6:55 pm

    I am just finishing up a month of Atwood, too!! Re-read Oryx and Crake (which I had LOVED the first time around), read TYotF, and now 2/3 through MaddAddam! She is so brilliant.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey October 17, 2013, 9:50 am

    Since starting blogging, I haven’t done much looking for more by authors I like, perhaps because there’s always something new I’m excited about. I’d like read everything I can find by an author I like more often though. As with you and Atwood, I think doing that can help you pick up on themes in the author’s writing, as well as giving you a better chance that you’ll like a book than if you picked one out at random.

    • Kim October 20, 2013, 2:17 pm

      It took me several books to, I think, see some of the connections in what Atwood writes about. I’d love to read more to keep digging into that (in my own casual, non-expert way).

  • Vasilly October 17, 2013, 12:55 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Atwood before. Every time I read a post about the author from you, I want to pick up one of her books.

  • Amy October 18, 2013, 8:27 pm

    I’ve read most of what she’s written. And I got to see her at Talking Volumes this month and get my picture taken with her! She was wonderful. Bonus: she signed my first American edition of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yes, it was a great night.

    • Kim October 20, 2013, 2:18 pm

      That sounds amazing!

  • Erin October 18, 2013, 10:38 pm

    Wow, we have similar Atwood-collecting habits and have had similar recent Atwood experiences! I listened to Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood shortly after the latter came out. But I listened to both Cat’s Eye and Maddaddam within the past couple of months.

    The trilogy…oh, it brought me such joy! I absolutely love how Atwood layered the stories and managed to create such a complete picture of the past, present, and even future. And…wow, I find it hard to put my love for these books into words.

    I’m with you on Cat’s Eye not being quite as amazing. I did like it, though. I like how Atwood digs into woman-to-woman relationships. She did that in The Robber Bride and The Blind Assassin, too (though I think the last of those three is my favorite).

    Anyway. Yes. All excellent books, and I’m glad you enjoyed them! Now I’m worried I should start rationing mine. I think Alias Grace is the only one I own that I haven’t read yet…eek!

    • Kim October 20, 2013, 2:19 pm

      Yes! The layers! It was so cool to me the way the world built and expanded through every book. It’s just brilliant.

      The Blind Assassin is, I think, my favorite Atwood too. It’s so weird, but I just adored it and trying to guess and second guess and explore what she was doing in that story. I have Alias Grace, which I’m leaning towards for my next Atwood.

  • Stacy October 19, 2013, 11:51 am

    Just discovered your blog via Goodreads. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m also a big fan of Cat’s Eye. The current trilogy, I’m sad to say, hasn’t thrilled me so far (haven’t read the new one yet). This post is making me want to go back and re-read some other Atwoods!

  • Maphead October 20, 2013, 9:32 pm

    I LOVED Oryx and Crake! I’ve had Year of the Flood sitting unread and ignored on my desk for far too long! I gotta read it!!

    • Kim October 21, 2013, 8:25 pm

      Get to it! It’s a great series 🙂

  • Allison @ The Book Wheel October 25, 2013, 9:24 pm

    A few bloggers have been on an Atwood kick lately and I can understand why. I’ve read her (not all, but some) and love her books even though she’s not my normal genre. Glad you had a good time with your month!

  • Kirsten Crippen October 26, 2013, 10:25 pm

    I love her too! I’m ashamed to say that I only read A Handmaid’s Tale for the first time a couple of years back. I loved it. But it’s rather frightening to read in this current political climate. (Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh would love that world.)

    Another I really enjoyed was The Year of the Flood. I haven’t read Oryx and Crake yet, I really should.

    • Kim October 27, 2013, 12:32 pm

      Exactly! The Handmaid’s Tale is so terrifying because none of the rhetoric of the book seems impossible, especially from the crop of right wing commentators we have!