November is Margaret Atwood Reading Month

1538481634614220282014I most emphatically do not like anything Margaret Atwood has written from The Handmaid’s Tale on. Oryx and Crake and subsequent books have become far too sci-fi for my taste, with a strong flavor of feminism and futuristic doom to boot.

But. Surfacing, The Cat’s Eye, and The Robber Bride are among three of my favorite books ever. (Particularly The Robber Bride which I have read at least three times.)


So, when Naomi of Consumed by Ink announced that she and Marci are hosting a Margaret Atwood Reading Month, I jumped right in. They have many events scheduled, in which you can participate or not as you choose. The point is, I believe, to celebrate the great power of Atwood’s voice.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Amazing to me, how Margaret Atwood can take the wife of Odysseus straight out of the Greek myths, and by giving her a personality, as well as a voice, remind me of the women in my very favorite book of hers, The Robber Bride. For to me, as much as anything, The Penelopiad is about the wiles of Helen of Troy against the faithfulness of her cousin, Penelope.

Because Helen ran off with Paris and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come back, Odysseus fulfills his oath and goes after her. Twenty long years he is gone; ten years in pursuit of Helen and ten years in pursuit of his own pleasures. Meanwhile, Penelope fends off her Suitors, promising that she will choose one when the shroud she is weaving is completed. Every night, she unravels a bit more to stave off the fulfillment of her promise.

Odysseus returns, disguised as a beggar. Penelope recognizes him, but fails to give up his identity. The twelve maids are hung, though they were raped by the Suitors to whom they were given because Penelope refused to defile her marriage bed.

Surely in all these ways the story Atwood tells follows what the myth has told. But her interpretation, the tension she creates between Penelope and Helen, is what fascinates me. Anyone can tell a myth; it takes Margaret to explore the complexities of women who betray other women.

‘Oh, Penelope, you can’t still be jealous,” she says. “Surely we can be friends now! Why don’t you come along with me to the upper world, next time I go? We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’ night out! But I forgot-that’s not your style. You’d rather play the faithful little wifey, what with the weaving and so on. Bad me, I could never do it, I’d die of boredom. But you were always such a homebody.”

Helen mocks, and teases, and belittles, never admitting the fact that she was the impetus for Odysseus leaving in the first place. She believes in her beauty, her ability to attract men, her flippant style, and she gives little care to how it affects those around her. How it has cost the twelve maidens their lives, and Penelope her marriage, but for her faithful allegiance.

No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she’d stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she’d just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.

I was a kind girl-kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so-in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging-but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

For those of you who’ve only read Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake, I beg you to read The Robber Bride. It is similar in so many ways to The Penelopiad, in that one woman is able to wreak havoc on all those around her and apparently come out unscathed. Who, then, is left to suffer?

The faithful one. Like Penelope.

Sunday Salon: Want To Join Us in an Atwood Read?

My friend Col and I are planning on reading Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad together, and we want to invite you to join us. We’ll be reading it the week of May 23 through May 28, 2011, with a review to be posted on Monday, May 30. Of course, if anything strikes our fancy before the 30th, we may post on that as well.

If you’re reading for the Read-a-Myth Challenge, or the Once Upon a Time 5 Challenge, this would be a perfect fit.

Here are some reviews to further pique your curiosity:

“In this exquisitely poised book, Atwood blends intimate humour with a finely tempered outrage at the terrible injustice of the maids, phrasing both in language as potent as a curse.” –Sunday Times (UK)
“Penelope flies with the help of the sardonic, dead-pan voice Atwood lends her, a tone — half Dorothy Parker, half Desperate Housewives.” –The Independent (UK)
“Alter[s] one’s point of view toward [the story], imbuing it with a modern sensibility yet revealing some eternal truths about men, women, and the issue of power, including the power to shape a narrative. . . . Atwood shows with intelligence and wit just how complicated and unpretty love can be.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
“Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope’s straight talk about her husband, her girly laments about the ferocious competition of Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood’s brilliance emerges in the skillful way she has woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Homer’s epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem. . . . A fascinating and rather attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over.” –Chicago Tribune
Will you join us?

Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Reading for Virago Week

To me, nobody writes of the pain that can be found in childhood like Margaret Atwood. Just as I felt when I read her novel Cat’s Eye, I find myself seared by the words I’m reading in Surfacing. I’m only halfway through this novel, but I have to post these thoughts now.

At first I ran away, but after that my mother said I had to go, I had to learn to be polite; “civilized” she called it. So I watched from behind the door. When I finally joined in a game of Musical Chairs, I was welcomed with triumph like a religious convert or a political defector.

Some were disappointed, they found my hermit-crab habits amusing, they found me amusing in general. Each year it was a different school, in October or November when the first snow hit the lake, and I was the one who didn’t know the local customs, like a person from another culture: on me they could try out the tricks and minor tortures they’d already used up on each other. When the boys chased and captured the girls after school and tied them up with their own skipping ropes, I was the one they would forget on purpose to untie. I spent many afternoons looped to fences and gates and convenient trees, waiting for a benevolent adult to pass and free me…

“If you don’t do it right we won’t play with you,” they said. Being socially retarded is like being mentally retarded, it arouses in others disgust and pity and the desire to torment and reform.

It was harder for my brother; our mother had taught him that fighting was wrong so he came home every day beaten to a pulp. Finally she had to back down: he could fight, but only if they hit first.

It must be something Canadian mothers tell their children. My brother and I were also taught not to fight by our Canadian mother. So unlike the American mothers in my experience, who said, “Someone hit you? Who hit you? Well, make sure you beat the crap out of them next time.”

I wasn’t teased or left out because I was ugly. Or, stupid. Or, anything wrong. I was teased because I wasn’t mean. I didn’t fight, and neither did my brother. We didn’t know how to handle teasing because the words spoken in our home weren’t unkind. We were vulnerable in the face of neighborhood bullying, schoolyard taunting, the cruelty of children everywhere.

This is part of why Margaret Atwood’s writing is so very poignant to me today.