Books Read in 2015 – 12. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

eclecticreader15

Genre: Myth, Feminist

Narrative style: first person with Greek chorus

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2005Unknown

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – genre rewriting myth

Synopsis: Penelope is left behind when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan Wars. He is then gone for ten years. Penelope has to deal with the rumours about his behaviour and all the suitors who try to convince her he is dead. She cleverly keeps them at bay by sewing and then undoing the shroud she is making. On his return, Odysseus slaughters the suitors and hangs Penelope’s maids, an act which haunts Penelope yet.

I have a fair understanding of The Illiad and know the story of Penelope fairly well. (I researched it when teaching the Carol Ann Duffy poem about Penelope in The World’s Wife, another fab rewriting of the story.) So I was quite excited to see what Atwood would make of it. I was not disappointed.

Atwood’s retelling starts in the fields of Asphodel with Penelope dead and haunted by the death of her maids. She still sees Odysseus (who is still able to trick her into thinking he will stay with her forever) and Helen who she hates. She then begins to tell her story.

Atwood’s Penelope is strong and clever but loses out to the stunning good looks of her cousin Helen. Intelligence in a woman is not appreciated. She has to deal with her mother-in-law who does not approve of her and Odysseus’s nurse, Eurycleia who thinks no one knows Odysseus like her. But she survives through her wit and with the support of her maids.

She sets them to work, like a spy network, to discover what the suitors are really planning. This leads to them being raped by the suitors and Penelope tends them kindly although she does not stop them spying for her. Some of them, she feels, are like her own children. She is closer to them then her son, Telemachus who is little more than a bundle of testosterone and muscle. Ultimately, this is their undoing. As when Odysseus returns he deals with them, second only to the suitors.

The Greek chorus is used to give a different side of the story. Often the chorus is made up of the maids who feel they know the truth of the situation. At one stage, the chorus becomes a modern day court room and Odysseus is put on trial for the crimes of killing the suitors. The maids then appear and demand justice for themselves as well. The scene quickly descends into chaos as the ancient legends mix with a modern court scene.

Finally, it is suggested that Penelope may have been part of a matriarchal goddess cult and so may actually be a lot more powerful than The Iliad gives her credit. Atwood addresses the double standards of the original story – Odysseus is adulterous but expects Penelope to remain pure, for example but the narrative is never merely preachy. Atwood’s women are always complicated and Penelope is not completely innocent, being herself complicit in the deaths of her maids. This is made apparent by her inability to lose them even in death. They follow her around, making forgetting impossible.

Overall, this was funny and clever, typical Atwood in a lot of ways. But really, I wouldn’t have chosen to read this if it was’t Atwood and while it was interesting, Greek myth isn’t really on my list of areas to read about.

Books Read in 2014 – 65. Maddaddam – Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative style: Third PersonUnknown

Rating 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This picks up the story at the end of both Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood with the earth decimated by a man-made plague. Toby and Ren have found Amanda, currently being held by two Painballers and are contemplating their next move when Jimmy appears. The action continues from this point. 

My expectations were high for this book. I had enjoyed the first two and really, I meant to read this one much earlier. I was half expecting to be disappointed. Could it possibly live up to my hopes?

Of course, this is Atwood we’re talking about. If anything this was better than The Year of the Flood. This was largely due to the Crakers being back on centre stage and Jimmy also. Although Jimmy wasn’t always an active participant, his character was inseparable from the mythology that he gives to the Crakers who treat his hat and watch as sacred objects. There is a lot of humour and also a lot of affection in Atwood’s creation of a religion for the Crakers. I particularly liked the way that they mistook the curse ‘Oh fuck’ for a cry to a deity who would come to help.

Zeb’s backstory added colour to the story of Crake and helped to explain events of the other two novels. It was enjoyable watching him switch identities and jobs, always managing to just get out of trouble. The love story between Toby and Zeb was also enjoyable. There was a refreshing lack of sentiment in their relationship. Toby was easy to identify with as she learned to put her insecurities to one side as the future of their group was much more important than any personal issues she may have.

I was a little troubled about the alliance between the humans and the pigoons at first. I wasn’t convinced that it wouldn’t just seem ridiculous but Atwood even managed to pull that off and they became more human than pig in the end.

The idea of teaching the Crakers to write and so be able to pass on their creation story to other generations was inspired. Atwood gives them childlike voices but never belittles them and their lack of guile. Perhaps this is what we would have to be like in order to actually save the current world.

The end of the novel is both sad and full of hope. There are deaths and battles but also births – babies that are half human and half Craker. The hope lies in the Crakers, their new mythology and the potential of the new species. It seems that the future is at least a little rosy.

Books Read in 2014 – 11. In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Genre: Literary criticism, Science, Science Fiction
narrative style: first person, academic
Rating: 5/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2011

Synopsis: A series of essays from varying points in Atwood’s career covering her views on science fiction and dystopia, the origins of her own ideas, reviews of science fiction that has influenced her and finally some short stories.

This was an excellent read. Atwood is an intelligent commentator on fiction and on culture. She traces the impulse towards utopia and dystopia, in both her own writing and within our culture.
The descriptions of her early reading and the differences between then and now are interestingly examined. It is fascinating to me, a person who has always known a certain level of technology, to imagine what it must have been like pre-television when people listened to the radio so much more. No doubt when space travel first began, it must have seemed so exciting and so beyond what anyone else had done. These days, it seems almost old hat. Atwood shows the same unfailing intelligence when examining her own fictional impulses as others which offers the reader a new insight.
Her reviews of classics such as The Island or Doctor Moreau, Women on the edge of time, 1984 and such like are equally intelligent. In fact, I was made to rethink my position on these books a couple of times because her views were so well thought out. I now have a long list of books that I need to read based on all the books that were mentioned that I hadn’t read.
Finally, tucked away at the end of this book are five short science fiction stories, all of which are filled with Atwood’s trademark sly humour and love of langauage. My favourite of these takes the form of a dinner party conversation about the perils of having your head cryogenically frozen. Atwood really picks the issue apart.
All in all a great read for anyone with an interest in science fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Worlds We’d Never Want to Live In

Top ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we are talking about fictional worlds we would not want to live in.

In no particular order:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. This is one of the first dystopia that I read and still ranks as one of the scariest. The humiliations that the handmaid’s go through are almost beyond imagining. Atwood’s nightmare world is frighteningly convincing.

2. 1984 – George Orwell. I read this at school. I am sure that it is at least partly responsible for my own political convictions. It is a shame that things like room 101 and big brother have been stripped of most of their meaning by imbecilic television programmes.

3. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I often feel like the savage in this book when I look at modern culture. I feel a little lost and confused when I see the things that people do, watch, listen to, post on social media.

4. Mad Addam series – Margaret Atwood. I haven’t read the third book of this series yet but the first two were really disturbing. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you could really see the roots of reality in this book. Take it as a warning, folks. This is where we could be headed.

5.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick / Bladerunner. It is particularly unsettling not to be able to tell if someone is human or not. Even more frightening is the idea that you might not even know yourself. This one eats at the very heart of the reader.

6. War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells. Oh, I know, the Martians get it in the end but up until that point, there really is no stopping them. I can’t help feeling this is what  it would be like if any aliens found us. Why travel across space and time, if you’ve not already conquered everything nearer at hand?

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins. I’ve not read the rest of this series either. I liked the idea of the games and the different sectors more than I liked the way the story played out. You know everyone would watch it, that’s what makes it seem real.

8. Animal Farm – George Orwell. Another early influence on me politically. I imagine I’d be like poor old Boxer. Well-meaning but ultimately useless. I’d soon be carted off to the equivalent of the glue factory.

9. The Road – Cormac McCarthy. This is probably the bleakest book I have ever read. Some unnamed catastrophe has caused society to break down. McCarthy really captures the way that it would go once those rules were gone.

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro. This is another book where I liked the idea better than the execution. Children being bred purely for their organs is a chilling – and not unlikely – idea that gets to the heart of the issues surrounding cloning.

The perfect implications of an imperfect world.

The recent edit of Choose Yr Future has seen some chapters disappear, some change and some needing to be written. When I first started writing some of the details of my future world weren’t as clear as they are now so obviously there have been some pretty big changes. For me, this is the one enjoyable thing to come out of editing. Until you read through the whole of your work, you don’t always realise you have been sidetracked. Sometimes the sidetrack becomes the main road. Sometimes you have to find a way back to the path you actually want to follow. But at the end, the destination should be clear.

One of the things that became clear to me was that while I was concerned about gender and sexuality issues, I hadn’t realised that I was writing about class so much. My future society is very much a class based world with no social mobility at all, apart from the lucky ones who get to win talent shows of one type or another. The sort of thing that gives the impression of mobility when in fact the majority of people are stuck with in the same place as they ever were; the same place where their parents were stuck; the same place their children will be stuck.

Of course, a lot of people believe that class divisions no longer matter and that social mobility is easier than it has ever been. And maybe that is true to an extent. After all, in my suburban house, with my job in education, I’d have a nerve to still call myself working class (although there is no doubt that I still do). If I had children, they would be born into a middle class world. But when a recent study showed that elite surnames still dominate in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and that underlying social status is more strongly inherited than height, there may be not as much cause to celebrate as you might think. Maybe there is more movement in the middle but as soon as you start to move to the extreme of either end, it becomes more and more difficult to move upwards at one end, less and less likely that you will lose your privilege at the other.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds. She discusses her own dystopian world and also the way that she feels that dystopia and utopia are not really the opposites we take them as but ever present within each other. I hadn’t thought about it before but it makes sense that if you create a perfect world then there must be the implication of an imperfect one and vice versa. What about the perfect world implied in my dystopic one? My future humans are caught up with voting on everything, they have no spare time as the government controls their every waking hour with work, exercise, recreation, and so on. They have health plans that they must keep to, they have roles that are chosen for them. They have a place in which they must stay, a time to get married, a time to have children. So I suppose my ideal world would be one where people were able and allowed to think for themselves, where they were given the freedom to be themselves and where you could actually choose your future.

 

 

 

Judging a book by its cover.

I’ve just started reading In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood and in the first chapter she talks about the way we make judgements about genre from book covers. In the course of this discussion, she mentioned two instances when she felt her own books had covers that did not match their content and gave readers a deceptive impression of what they were about. I think she felt a little sorry for the readers who had bought these books expecting one thing and getting another.

I had been thinking a similar thing a couple of days ago. I’d been in The Works as they had an offer on for 3 books for £5. (Rude not to and all that.) As ever, I’d found two books that I wanted (Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and Let the Right One in by John Ajvide Lindqvist) but I was struggling to find a third.

I quickly dismissed whole swathes of shelves due to their covers. There were the ones that looked vaguely like Twilight and the ones that looked like 50 Shades of Grey and then shelves full of those pastel shaded chick lit books with curly writing and sketches of skinny women on the front. To be far, I’ve not really read any of these but the sheer femininty oozing from their covers really puts me off.

I wasn’t getting very far and I realised that I was going to have take a closer look. It was then I found a small section of Murial Spark books, decked out in the same pastel covers as the chick lit books. Imagine thinking you were getting some light, modern comedy romance  – so I imagined anyway, maybe these books are deeper than they look –  and getting the darkerness of The Driver’s Seat or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It would be a bit of a shock to the system, I’m sure.

It is interesting that we make these decisions, dismissing or accepting a book before we’ve even picked it off the shelf. I told myself that in the future I would make myself look closer before dismissing things out of hand. In reality, I doubt I’ll keep to it as these processes happen somewhere below conscious thought and so aren’t really controllable. And it would obviously be a time issue if you had to scrutinise everything before making a decision. I guess, I’ll keep judging a book by its cover.

Day 2 – 30 day writing challenge – Pick a book at random and use the opening line

Day 2 - from Chrys Fey's 30 day writing challenge. 
Open a book at random and pick a line. Use that line as the
beginning of your piece and continue writing from where it 
leaves off. Pen the first thoughts that come to mind and don’t
revise it.

(The opening line is from Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood.)

Her parents thought she was becoming too wrapped up in these 
things and tried to give her dancing lessons to make her more
sociable. 
More sociable? In what way would being in a room full of sweaty
girls make her more likely to speak to any of them. Probably some
sort of leotard would be required. She had no desire to have flesh
on display. The more flesh on display, the more tongue tied. That
was an obvious correlation.
She didn't really understand why they were so concerned. She would
speak to them if she thought it was worth it but it clearly wasn't.
None of them were as interesting as the people in the books she read. 
None of them came close to the people she could imagine. They must
exist somewhere other than in her head. Well, even if they didn't 
she liked creating a world where they did.