My love for Margaret Atwood goes all the way back to high school, when my favorite English teacher told me offhandedly that I should try her out. Come to think of it, he was also the reason I discovered Barbara Kingsolver's essay collections, so a significant percentage of my favorite writers of all time can be traced back to that one teacher's recommendations. It's fortunate for me that he didn't try to extract any remuneration, say in the form of a firstborn child or buried treasure, because I'm most definitely in his debt.
This was back in the days when I picked out my next book by aimlessly browsing the fiction section at Borders and eventually settling on one that either A) sported the name of a familiar author, or B) had appealing cover art. I'm a tad more systematic now, and logic tells me that in all likelihood I would have eventually stumbled upon Atwood and Kingsolver on my own, but I'm so grateful I didn't have to wait to discover them. Who would I be without the experience of having read The Handmaid's Tale and High Tide in Tucson as a teenager? I'm glad I'll never have to know.
Imagine, then, my squeal-y delight when my sister-in-law Belinda let me know that Margaret Atwood herself would be coming to Lawrence for a lecture and book signing and asked if I'd want to attend with her. (In case you haven't heard, Lawrence, Kansas is a veritable hub of culture, and this isn't the first time Belinda has kindly invited me to a literary event there. It's always worth the drive!)
Of course my answer was, “Hell yes!” I promptly ordered a copy of Atwood's latest book, a short story collection called Stone Mattress, as it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out some of her short fiction in preparation for the event. Up until now I've always stuck to her novels since that's more my comfort zone as a reader, but when an author has written so many fabulous books that two full pages are required to list them all, well, it's probably time to put on your big-girl panties and branch out.
And yeesh, is Stone Mattress good. Atwood's writing is always sharp and witty and just freakin' stone cold perfection. It's also incredibly dark. So dark that even though it's a fairly slim volume, I had to stretch the reading out over several days. Reading all nine stories in one sitting, at least for a sensitive soul like me, could have led to all kinds of emotional bottoming-out behaviors, like binge-eating Girl Scout cookies or taking four-hour afternoon depression naps. Because I didn't want to end up raving senselessly under a bridge, I took it in small bites.
As it turns out, this is exactly what Atwood recommended during the Q&A portion of the evening. A high school teacher asked her how she would respond to students who complain that her work is too depressing. Atwood paused briefly before intoning, “It's only a book. You can close the covers!” So instead of feeling like a wuss for not being able to steamroll through all the heaviness, I felt vindicated. I can take breaks if I want to! Margaret Atwood said so!
That sound bite is an apt representation of the event as a whole. Atwood's dry humor pervaded her entire lecture. An explanation of the roots of her interest in biology somehow led to a story of how she once discussed whale testicles at length at a dinner party. The subtitle of the speech itself ended with the phrase, “Zombies Thrown in Extra.” She even managed to playfully skewer the committee who invited her to speak, reading their overly detailed and bombastic request word for word. Perhaps it was a bit of an ornery move, but a well-deserved one. Anyone who gives Margaret Atwood a writing prompt has earned what mockery they get.
Belinda and I each brought a book in anticipation of the signing, but when we followed the snaking line of hipsters with unwashed hair and oldsters in hand-knitted fisherman sweaters and realized the end of it was four flights down, next to the ground floor exit doors, we chose the doors. As much as I would have liked a signature on the title page of my hardcover copy of Stone Mattress, it's probably for the best that we skipped it. I'm famously awkward at book signings.
If you've never read Margaret Atwood, I can't recommend her strongly enough. The Handmaid's Tale is the most obvious place to start as it's her most popular book, but I can also heartily recommend the novels Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. I read Oryx and Crake, one of her more recent offerings and the first volume in a dystopian trilogy, for our Summer of Sci-Fi feature last year. And of course, if you can handle the darkness, Stone Mattress would be an excellent choice as well. (As always, title links are affiliate links. More info on how that works here.)
Just remember, if it gets too depressing: “It's only a book. You can close the covers.”