With two days until my Atwood experience, I am basking in her wisdom.
With two days until my Atwood experience, I am basking in her wisdom.
Last week, I gave you ten sound bites from my six-year-old daughter, Liliana. While I would love to provide the same for my two-year-old son, his would consist of mostly growling (as he is part dinosaur) or saying his cheek is “broken” in order to get a kiss. He is a giver though, and here are some of his favorite things to pass on to me:
A friend recently asked me how to get started reading Margaret Atwood. My head was immediately swimming with a million directives. However, to avoid overwhelming a prospective reader, I’ve come up with a selection of Atwood works for those wishing to dip their toes in the wonder of her writing.
At age six, my daughter Liliana already has a mouth on her. This is probably not a surprise to people who know us, but sometimes the things she comes up with leave me battling to keep a straight face.
1. I wrote this post about The Blind Assassin. I got this tweet in reply. Swoon.
@akellyanderson: Thank you!
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) May 17, 2013
2. My Wromance (writing romance) A.J. Kandathil wrote about the Five Pillars of Place using Park and Rec on Ploughshares. ‘Cause that’s how she rolls ( awesome, that’s how she rolls).
3. While you are on the Ploughshares blog, take a gander at the piece I wrote about Cowboy Poetry. You should read it. It’s okay, you can click now. This list will wait.
4. The Office aired its final episode. I cried. I’ll write about it next week. In the meantime, rewatch The Office or watch it for the first time. Either way, win-win-win. In the meantime, enjoy this:
5. Two of my favorite shows growing up were Designing Women and The Golden Girls. This article reminds me why I loved Dorothy and may be like her in about thirty years.
The fifth part in my series on Literary Cowboys is live on Ploughshares today. Mosey on over and give it a look-see.
Before I fell in love with Margaret Atwood, I fell in love, as readers often do, with one of her books.
Perhaps as an American female writer I should be more enamored with Joyce Carol Oates, but I just can’t help myself. Our (one-sided) romance took root in the autumn of 2000. Newly graduated from college, I meandered into a Santa Monica bookstore in one of those rare moods where I had no purpose other than to wander through the world of literature, seeing what caught my eye. At the front of the store was the display of New Releases. There were other works there, but the cover art of this particular book called to me.
Perhaps it was because the image reminded me of LA Confidential, one of my favorite films. Or it might have been the title–The Blind Assassin. Already so intriguing, particularly juxtaposed with an image that seemed completely disconnected. The book found its way into my hands. Rather than reading the jacket, I flipped to the first page:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”
I shut the book and bought it. In that single sentence, she had me. Although I knew Atwood’s name from The Hand Maid’s Tale, I had never read the book and knew almost nothing about her. I bought a non-discounted hardcover book based on three things: the title, the chapter title, and the first sentence.
While the title is intriguing (how does one become a sightless political murderer?), the other two were what harkened to my wallet. Here was a decidedly adult text that used chapter headings instead of numbers. It automatically gave the text, to me, an almost fairytale quality. It reminded me of books I had read as a kid that were completely engaging, so much so that I lost track of hours and weeks because I was captivated by this world. There again was that promise.
The first sentence is, without question, simple. In that is the beauty. We have a simple subject (Laura) and a simple verb (drove). Atwood establishes a rough time period (sometime around a modern war–one might guess World War II at the earliest), a point of view, and a mystery. Notice that Laura’s car did not drive off the bridge. It did not swerve or fall. She “drove” it. That indicates intent. Did Laura drive off of a bridge on purpose? Is the time period, ten days after the conclusion of a war, significant?
The answer to both is yes. The why to both takes roughly 500 beautifully rendered pages to fully grasp.
The Blind Assassin is on that short list I mentioned last week of life changing books. It is as if Atwood took everything I love, shattered it into pieces, and constructed a narrative mosaic that displays flashes of the familiar in ways I could never have imagined. The use of newspaper entries, flashback, nesting, and somehow even science fiction to tell a historical romance should not work. And yet it does. After reading more of her work, the themes and style are decidedly Atwood; I’m rereading Cat’s Eye right now and feel bits of Iris in Elaine, even though they are different characters.
Beyond the beauty of the prose and the stellar storytelling, the novel has sentimental ties. It is one of the last books my grandfather read before his sight was too far gone. Although set in Canada, coming from Michigan, he responded to the time period and sense of place. After reading it he couldn’t wait to sit down at our weekly dinner to discuss it with me. But it was more than just the WWII period that engaged him: I think he felt connected to Iris as he counted down the years of his life. I remember him needing his handkerchief to dab at the tears as he recounted in gasping chuckles one of his favorite sections–Iris reading graffiti in bathroom stalls. He never admitted that he did it himself, but his reaction tells me he did.
One of my grandfather’s habits that I have acquired is signing the front of books. When he finished a book, be it the Bible or Harry Potter, he would initial (or sign) and date the inside cover. It was his mark, his way of remember what he read. For me it has been a way to connect with him after he died. Many of his books came to my keeping. When I begin them, I can see those letter and numbers telling me when he held the pages. Eventually, I sign my name under his. For all that I love technology, I doubt I can ever completely give up the actual book, if just because it would mean giving up my books as documents of those I’ve known and loved and the books we’ve shared. (It’s a rule, by the way, that if you borrow a book from me, you have to sign and date inside the front cover. Don’t like it? Don’t borrow my books.)
When I teach Atwood in my classroom, I usually do “Happy Endings” because it is in our textbook, although recently we also looked at “Backdropp Addresses Cowboy” as part of post-colonialism. “Happy Endings” concludes with this thought: “True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.” Atwood addresses our fixations on beginnings and endings without focusing on the meat of the subject. My favorite line from The Blind Assassin mirrors this thought in even more poetic terms:
“The living bird is not its labeled bones.”
As a writer, I try to keep that in mind. The skeleton of the story can be the same as ten thousand others. It is the living bird that we strive to capture with our words if only to show that it not just brittle remains with labels.
Thus, I take no hesitation in naming The Blind Assassin as my favorite book. That copy I bought out of college (that I couldn’t really afford) with my grandfather’s signature is priceless to me, as priceless as the story inside.
Last Friday marked the end of another year for me. Although I have a summer of online teaching, reading and writing, and program review ahead of me, for now the tide of never ending responsibility is ebbing. Since my kids are still in school, today I have the pleasure of time to myself. In taking stock, I realize I have let myself sink to the bottom of my list of important things. My professional life, while certainly an important part of me, has overrun the rest. What has suffered is my mental and physical health. Bottom line? I’m burnt out.
Beauty may be only skin deep, but health and well-being manifest in the physical in addition to the mental. Case in point, my high levels of stress and poor eating habits have caused my face to break out. My muscles ache and my digestive system feels off. I need to reboot. Therefore, the first order of business is to return to the eating habits my body needs–simple, unprocessed foods, water, actually sitting down to put things in my mouth. Physically I crave walking, which has always been a reprieve for my body and mind. And mentally, well, the best cure for me is reading.
I hate that I let myself get to this point, that I become so consumed with work and stress that I can’t stop and help myself. Perhaps because of the nature of the academic year, I feel like I need to ride out the semester and pick up the pieces later. What a triumph it would be to balance my personal needs with all of the other elements of my life. Here’s hoping one day I figure it out. Until then, I’ll take my summer reboots.
Excuse my brevity; I have a border collie in need of a walk and a book that won’t read itself.