Book Review: Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, is a collection of nine short stories, some of which are standalone and others interlinked. It opens with a triptych involving the writer of a highly successful fantasy series and her one time boyfriend who became a moderately successful poet. The jealousies and elitism of the literary world feature. There is desire for recognition and esteem but also commercial success.

Throughout the collection the protagonists are mostly elderly, looking back over their lives with a degree of regret. It is refreshing to have older people portrayed fully rounded – as more than a stereotype or the first impression they give.

The first story is Alphinland in which Constance is mourning the recent death of her husband, Ewan. An ice storm is blowing in and, for the first time, she must deal with the practicalities of the event herself. She still hears Ewan talk to her, offering advice that is prescient. Constance welcomes this interaction. When alive Ewan had been supportive if somewhat condescending of her achievements. She is a prolific author whose books have been developed on multiple media including a popular on line game. Despite its success, her work has long been derided by the literary establishment. Ewan struggled to take what she did seriously. Constance used it as a means of escape and a way to punish those who hurt her, including the woman she blames for the break up of her first serious relationship with a poet who regarded his own work as far superior.

The second story, Revenant, introduces the reader to Gavin and his much younger third wife, Reynolds. Gavin is bored and frustrated by the way she now treats him – like ‘a dysfunctional pet’. He believes women should ‘labour to be beautiful’, and hankers back to the years when they did so and then fell for his charms, accepting the inevitability of his advances even when forced. He is also frustrated that the poems he now writes are past their best. When a young student arranges to interview him he behaves badly – mainly because it is not his work that is the focus of her research.

The final story in the triptych is Dark Lady in which Jorrie indulges her fixation with other people’s deaths. She lives with her twin brother, Tin, who does his best to steer her wilder impulses away from appearing foolish to a casually critical public audience. When Jorrie spots that an old boyfriend, Gavin Putnam, has died she wishes to attend the funeral. Tin reluctantly agrees to accompany her. It proves an enlightening experience as adversaries come together and long held misconceptions are aired.

Lusus Naturae tells the tale of a child who contracts an illness that turns her into a monster. Aware that having such a being in the family will adversely affect her sister’s future prospects the family fake the monster child’s death. She must then live her life out of sight, something she is content to do. Over time, however, this proves a lonely existence. A quest for a mate puts her in deadly danger.

The Freeze Dried Groom offers up another man who feels frustrated that he cannot indulge his desires for the personal attention of beautiful and compliant women. Sam owns an antique shop, buying the contents of storage units as a means of sourcing stock. He also has a sideline. On the day his wife asks him to leave he finds more than he bargained for inside a newly purchased unit. The prospect of risk with potential reward proves hard to resist.

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from the author’s novel The Robber Bride. Elderly friends are concerned when an old flame makes a move on the gullible Charis, worrying that he has his eye on her recent inheritance. They had persuaded her to get a dog in the hope it would offer protection. They come to believe that the dog may be more wily than expected.

The Dead Hand Loves You is another tale of a successful writer affected throughout his long life by actions during his college years. Jack Dace is still best known for his first work, a horror story that was subsequently adapted for film. He has never felt quite comfortable with the literary worth of the novel that has provided his wealth, and how he is therefore perceived by those he wishes to impress. He is also resentful that the housemates he had while writing the book have benefited from his material success. He sets out to avenge what he regards as their unfair exploitation.

Stone Mattress is the tale of a serial killer – a woman who has made her fortune by seeking out wealthy but unwell husbands and then bringing about their deaths. Set on an arctic expedition, it was written when the author was on such an adventure as a way of entertaining fellow passengers with a story of how to murder one of their number without getting caught. It is a tale of revenge.

The collection is rounded off with Torching the Dusties, a troubling exploration of what could happen if young people grew so angry with the wealthy elderly, who they blame for making their world so bleak, that they decide to forcibly end their lives. Set in an upmarket care home, the secluded environment is put under siege when protesters cut off supplies and remove staff. The residents rally, but outside the protest is gaining support and momentum.

As may be expected from Margaret Atwood, these stories are skilfully written with many touching but also piercing asides. There is humour and wit, especially around the frustrated entitlement felt by certain men, and the literati. Although I prefer the development and depth of her longer works there is much here that can be dipped into and enjoyed. A well polished, engaging and worthwhile read.

Stone Mattress is published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: The Penelopiad

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“And what did I amount to, once the official version gained ground? An edifying legend. A stick used to beat other women with.”

Penelope, the devoted wife of the glorious Odysseus, waited patiently for two decades on the island of Ithaca for her husband to return home from his part in the defeat of Troy following Paris’ seduction of the already married Helen. Alone on the rocky island Penelope is besieged by suitors, over a hundred of them, eager for her hand in marriage that they may relieve her of the great wealth she acquired as daughter of Icarius of Sparta. She must use all her wiles, and the help of her twelve young maids, to fend off these unwelcome advances.

Or so goes the legend, best known from Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is portrayed as

“the quintessential faithful wife, a woman known for her intelligence and constancy.”

But The Odyssey is not the only source of this story. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood challenges the inconsistencies in the accepted tale. Here she tells it from Penelope’s point of view interspersed with choruses, which were used in Classical Greek drama, sung or told by the twelve maids who were hanged when Odysseus finally returned.

The story opens in Hades where Penelope wanders amongst the asphodel, and contemplates the legacy of her life on earth. Occasionally she catches glimpses of goings on across the River Styx, offering amusing reflections on modern habits, their shallowness and futility. Penelope has waited patiently as her legend has grown from her husband’s telling of events. Now she wishes to ‘spin a thread of her own’.

She begins with her childhood, the reasons for her antipathy towards her parents. When her marriage is arranged she is content to leave them, although finds Ithaca a lonely place. She feels despised by her mother-in-law, learning more about the customs of the place from her husband’s old nurse. When her child, Telemachus, is born, this nurse takes over his care.

Penelope is satisfied in her marriage to Odysseus until her cousin, the vainglorious Helen, ruins things for her. Odysseus is obliged to fight in the Trojan wars due to an oath made to secure peace amongst the many men who had competed for the hand of the famous beauty, including him. Left alone to wait, Penelope raises the twelve maids as her eyes and ears in an increasingly difficult situation. Their views on events are vividly portrayed in the choruses, with the lightest of touches.

When Odysseus eventually returns Penelope realises that she must tread carefully or will shoulder a portion of the blame, and therefore punishment, for all that has happened on Ithaca in his absence, particularly the dent made in Telemachus’s inheritance. She cannot be seen by her husband to be too aware.

“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness”

The writing is acerbic in places but satisfyingly witty. The characters are presented as humane despite their willingness to kill each other with impunity. Given their pedigrees they are suitably god like in their self-absorption and contempt.

Any Cop?: Clever and entertaining, this retelling bridges the gap neatly between ancient and modern, between gods and men. I learned little new of the legend but presenting Penelope as feisty made her more plausible considering the circumstances endured. The question marks left over the veracity of Odysseus’ exploits added to the story’s humour and depth. The maids’ tale is a reminder of behaviours powerful men are permitted to get away with.

 

Jackie Law

Gig Review: Margaret Atwood in Bath

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When I first read ‘The Handmade’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood something inside me shifted. Her writing has the power to do that, to pull together nebulous strands of thought and give them coherence. I have read many although not yet all of her books over the past thirty or so years. It pleases me that I still have some to look forward to as she has in that time become one of my favourite authors.

Thanks to the fabulous independent bookshop, Toppings in Bath, I had the opportunity yesterday to meet her. I joined a number of her fans, two of whom had travelled all the way from the Lake District specifically for this event, as we listened to Ms Atwood read from her latest two books. She chose an excerpt from one of the short stories included in ‘Stone Mattress’ which she had not previously read to a live audience. We were also treated to two readings from the concluding instalment of her MaddAddam trilogy, a dystopian tale which is to be adapted for television by HBO (although she pondered how they will depict the Craker’s blue bits).

As well as the readings Ms Atwood answered questions from the assembled audience and at the end I was offered the chance to talk with her briefly. I do not embrace the cult of celebrity which appears to have pervaded society but I do enjoy meeting writers. I wonder what she thinks of these literary events: flattered that people wish to see her? a chance to engage with readers? Perhaps it is now simply a necessary part of the job.

Listening to any writer of fiction read from their work is fascinating, I like to hear the voices that are given to the characters they have created. What made this event worthwhile for me though was observing Ms Atwood’s interactions with her audience as she answered their questions.

One gentleman was interested in a perceived South American influence in her writing. A young lady who was studying her work wished to expand her academic knowledge. One question gave Ms Atwood an opportunity to expound her environmental passions, a topic that is an important part of the Maddaddam series. My interest was particularly piqued by two other points that she discussed.

Margaret Atwood’s brother is a biologist and she works hard to ensure that the science she includes in her books is based on fact. She told us that even the most outlandish, futuristic developments are either already possible or are being developed. Her website gives more detail on this but she did mention one example that amused me. The Crakers in Maddaddam purr over people who are sick. Apparently a purring cat has been shown to help heal certain brain conditions in people. Getting a cat to sit still on someone’s head could be tricky, but perhaps some budding entrepreneur could develop ‘the cat in the hat’.

A question was asked about writing poetry as opposed to prose. Ms Atwood suggested that the creation of poetry was like music or maths and could involve a great deal of staring out a window. Fiction on the other hand was inspiration followed by perspiration, requiring a different type of dedicated work over a lengthy period of time.

I asked Ms Atwood if she had known that the Maddaddam series would be a trilogy when she started to write the first book, Oryx and Crake. She told me that it was only as she was concluding the novel that she realised there was so much more of the story to tell. Her books evolve as she writes them and do not always go where she intended. To take George RR Martin’s words, she is a gardener rather than an architect. Given her interests and favoured fictional subjects this seemed somehow appropriate.

This particular literary event was held in a beautiful church built by benefactors in the eighteenth century who realised that many of Bath’s residents could not afford to attend the cathedral for worship. As I sipped my wine and admired the creative skills of those who had long ago created such a fabulous building it seemed fitting that I would be there to enjoy it with someone who has the ability to create whole worlds, and who can transport us there with her words.

 

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Book Review: MaddAddam

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MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood, is the final book in a trilogy which started with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and continued with The Year of the Flood in 2009. All three books tell stories that run in parallel, although each takes the overlapping characters a little further along in time.

MaddAddam focuses on the street-wise Zeb. In telling his story we get the final links in the plot strands that join characters we have been introduced to in the previous books, the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners. The survivors from these groups are now living as a small community, trying to eke out an existence following the chaos that Crake unleashed in his attempt to rid the world of the evils of humanity.

The peaceful replacements that he created, the Crakers, play a prominent role in this instalment as do several of the other creatures bioengineered by the gene splicing scientists before the waterless flood. As well as more detailed background we are given a glimpse of how the new world order will develop once the chaos has settled. I found this glimpse the most depressing aspect of the book as it looked rather too familiar. It suggested that the world is condemned to repeat its mistakes from whatever new start, perhaps that is the point which the author wishes to make.

The MaddAddam trilogy tells of a dystopian future that makes for powerful reading because it is so perceptive, detailed and believable. This final part is as compelling and skillfully written as the previous two. Key plot details are first unveiled as simplified stories told each evening to the Crakers. These are biblical in style, the writing of them serving as a spiritual text more than a history. The whole book has an allegorical feel running alongside the tension and action.

It is hard to regret the destruction of the world described, yet I felt sad that the reboot could not offer more hope for the future. I suspect that a happy ever after would not have stood up after all that had gone before. Despite the leaps in science and the many strange creatures, this book comes across as a disturbing possibility.

MaddAddam is clever and readable, neatly concluding a fabulous tale from a master story teller. Questions are answered, loose ends tied and a future suggested. There is doubtless a moral message running through the writing but it does not come across as preaching.

A fast moving, tightly told story with a cast of strong and complex characters; this eagerly anticipated offering from Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors, did not disappoint.

Book Review – The Year of the Flood

Having enjoyed ‘Oryx and Crake’ many years ago, I was predisposed to be impressed by this, the second book in Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. It did not disappoint.

Set in a dystopian future the book chronicles the lives of a wide cast of disparate characters, thus enabling the reader to better understand the new world order. It works as a standalone read, although the references to characters from the first book of the series add interest.

As with other futuristic books by this author, the world she creates is all too believable. From the brothels to the beauty parlours to the segregated housing and healthcare for rich and poor, the reader will recognise the direction in which the modern world could be heading. The book is both comic and frightening in it’s perceptiveness.

It is easy to read but has depth and action in abundance. Although it is tempting to despair of the foolish and selfish actions that have lead to this place in time, there remains humanity, friendship and compassion within individual relationships, alongside the power struggles inside the many groups. It feels real and therefore all too believable.

Leaps of faith are required, such as the creation of a new race by Crake (for which the first book offers background), but the studies of religion, power and humanity’s acceptance of what should be horrific, are spot on.

It is a story of love, friendship and survival that spans twenty years in the lives of the main protagonists.

Another recommended read from one of my favourite authors.

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Sunday Read

It rained on Sunday. I could hear the pitter patter on the window as I woke up. Although we have finally succumbed to the cold and turned the heating on, the boiler had not yet fired when I first became aware that my sleep was concluded. My bedroom was cold but I was snuggly warm under my duvet. The pitter patter of the rain on the window was comforting.

When my need for coffee became greater than my need to rest I wandered downstairs. A great advantage of parenting teenagers is the peace and quiet of the early mornings at weekends. I had time to appreciate the contents of a freshly set coffee pot, and to browse the news sites, before I was required to act with any sort of coherency.

The rain looked to have set in for the day. I decided to leave the family to cope as they so often claim they can. I retreated to my library with my coffee, selected a book that I have been saving for just such an occasion, settled in my armchair and gave myself up to the pleasures of another world.

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. I admire the way that she can write historical, contemporary and futuristic fiction with such depth and believability. On Sunday I read a book that had been favourably reviewed on the sites that I turn to when considering purchasing a book. ‘Cat’s Eye’ did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of the life of a painter. From the perspective of middle age, she looks back and tries to make sense of the moments and memories. From the first chapter I was gripped: ‘Time is not a line but a dimension… like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.’

The narrator reminisces about a life that is so different to mine, yet I could empathise with many of her thoughts. From the third chapter: ‘… everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.’

The plot covers the narrator’s relationships with her childhood peers and the adults who took care of them. The author manages to convey so many thoughts and feelings that I recognised from my own nine year old or thirteen year old self. She captures the insular fear and the impotence of youth, but also the irrelevance of adults. They exist but are not understood or considered. They are an alien species to be wary of.

I gain pleasure from thinking back over my life. If I am lucky and can maintain my good health then I will now be a mere half way through the time that I can reasonably ask to spend on this earth. I hope that there are many more memories to be made, but the one’s that have gone are precious to me. My own childhood and that of my children are my treasure, that I take out and polish with some regularity.

A book such as ‘Cat’s Eye’ reminds me that these memories have a tendency to be rose tinted. I remember a happy childhood, and I consider that I had one, but there were also times when I felt belittled or sidelined by my peers. There were times of rejection and loneliness, when I did not act the part required of me. Children are, too often, power hungry and ruthless in their play. I was never a leader; never cool.

Yet still, it is the friends from my youth that I seek out at every opportunity. I enjoy and value their company for the shared life we have led, that I look back on with fondness. In this book the narrator returned to her home town a success and was preoccupied with the thought of encountering a frenemy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the damage that the early acquaintance had inflicted she was constantly distracted by this possible rencounter. She recognised her flaws and sought answers from her history.

I enjoy many different genres but feel particularly satisfied with a book when I feel that I have got inside the head of a character and gained an understanding. People fascinate me.

On Sunday I spent much of my day avoiding social interaction. I put out food, prepared dinner, but did not seek out company. I was immersed in the world that I held between the pages of my book. Such escapism can be satisfying and enlightening but, for me, should be rationed. I find books so hard to put down. I need to know what happens to the new friends I have encountered between the pages; I feel bereft when I have read their story and must consign them to memory.

‘Cat’s Eye’ is not one of the books that I will rave about to those who will listen, but I would still recommend it. I will not start another book until I have had time to digest the many thoughts and feelings that it evoked. Reading it filled a day, and it was a day well spent.

Cover of "Cat's Eye"