Thursday, November 20, 2008


In all the excited anticipation of the National Book Award announcements yesterday, I plum overlooked Margaret Atwood’s birthday, which was Tuesday, November 18. Belated Happy Birthday!

Here’s the Writer's Almanac tribute:
It's the birthday of novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, (books by this author) born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). Her father was an entomologist who spent every year from April to November studying insects at a forestry research station in Northern Quebec. Atwood said, "At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown." She had no access to television or movies, and few children to play with. So she spent her time exploring the woods and reading.

Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969. It's about a woman who finds that she can no longer eat after her boyfriend proposes marriage. Atwood is best known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985), about an imaginary America where religious fanatics have taken over the government. The book became an international best-seller.

The first Margaret Atwood book I ever read was The Handmaid’s Tale. And it changed me. Memory fails me: I’m not sure if I read it in college or shortly thereafter—a fact that is surprising to me considering how this book and author became such a defining part of my budding feminism. I could easily spend the rest of the day, and well into the next, digging through journals, consulting with my friend Caryl (who, I am certain, is responsible for recommending Atwood), until I pinpointed the exact moment when I made contact. Suffice it to say, Atwood is a crucial part of my reading history, not just for her novels’ themes but also for her confident style.

After Handmaid’s Tale, I gorged on a rapid succession of novels and story collections, including Cat’s Eye, Bluebeard's Egg, Wilderness Tips, and Robber’s Bride, to name a few, and I have engaged in countless conversations about Atwood’s brilliance with anyone who would listen. A few years ago, Caryl and I saw Margaret Atwood speak and read through the Talking Volumes program, and she was amazing, her powerful intellect and poise radiating off the stage.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Atwood. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I abandoned The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake feels intimidating. But, there are plenty of early works I haven’t cracked yet, and, even though it's not on my annual reading list, I feel a re-read of Handmaid’s Tale coming on...


Jenn said...

I put off reading Handmaids Tale for years, well, because, it's tough. But amazing. And well worth another read. Thanks for writing about an amazing writer.

Caryl said...

Happy Belated Birthday, Ms. Atwood!

Catherine Lupori introduced me to Atwood. Human Experience in Literature, sophomore year: "She is an important, powerful writer, and The Handmaid's Tale is an amazing novel. Read it!" Or something like that. :)

I still have the copy of Wilderness Tips you gave me, Jen! I think we should read an Atwood together this coming year.

jennifer said...

Jenn, Handmaid's Tale really is amazing, isn't it? It's usually what comes to mind when faced with the question of which one book would I like to read for the first time.

Caryl, Don't you love this photo? Yes, let's read Atwood in '09. Do you remember reading stories from Bluebeard's Egg aloud at the Hague apt? You were so lucky to have Catherine Lupori for Human Experience! I think there were those English professors who taught and those who read, but Lupori is that rare gem who did both. Now, which Atwood? Maybe early, like Edible Woman or Surfacing?

Caryl said...

Yes, I remember reading Atwood stories with you!

I loved Edible Woman in college and have been wanting to read it again. Surfacing has been sitting on my shelf, waiting for me forever... I'd be game for either of these.

My IRL book group is reading Alias Grace for our January meeting. I've read it already, and it's good. Have you?