Frothy, courtly occasional pieces from Booker-winning Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000, etc.).
The Toronto-based novelist is a powerful booster of her fellow Canadian literati, whom Americans tend to lose in translation. Here, she showcases some of the reviews and comments published over the last two decades regarding important Canadian fiction—from Margaret Laurence’s A Jest of God, Lucy M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi to the lifetime achievements of Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields. Atwood scrutinizes them all. Other pieces describe writing her dystopian masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale, while living in west Berlin and banging “on a rented typewriter with a German keyboard,” and her fascination with the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition, whose crew perished of lead poisoning while seeking the Northwest Passage to the Orient. (She made a “literary pilgrimage” to Beechy Island to revisit the expedition’s remains.) The reviews are less interesting, since Atwood writes only about books that she likes and admits to being a “stroker” (who rewards good performance) rather than a “spanker” (who punishes bad performance). A few autobiographical essays evoke her more prickly feminist side and will arrest the attention of her devout readers: “That Certain Thing Called the Girlfriend” proclaims women to be at least as interested in other women as in men, and “Laughter vs. Death,” sparked by research she did for Bodily Harm, offers her appalled reflections on the pornography industry. In a playful review of Robin Robertson’s Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame, Atwood records her answer when a Mexican TV interviewer asked whether she considered herself feminine: “What, at my age?” she blurted out. She also weighs in on Gabriel García Márquez, Antonia Fraser, Marina Warner, Angela Carter, H.G. Wells, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Atwood is always a gracious writer, stately and polished, though the public persona exemplified here is not nearly as fascinating as her darkly enigmatic literary side.
For the die-hard fan.