Jennifer Astle

October 16, 2009

Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

coverWe all have that author.  That author who has shaped our perceptions of fiction (or non-fiction, perhaps), for whom we have spent many hours ignoring the outside world while we fully wrap ourselves in the pages, and allow ourselves to be swept away for two, four, eight, twelve hours at a time, and before we’ve discovered what we must, MUST know about the book, it’s dinner time, and a hungry partner gives a forlorn look like “you love that book more than me.”  For me, Margaret Atwood is that author.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was handed to me by a favorite teacher, I had no idea the journey I would be on, for Atwood’s has been the voice that followed me through the years, a decade really, feeding my overactive imagination, resurrecting the hurt child in me, and shaping me into a feminist long before any university professors got a hold of me.

I picked up The Year of the Flood a week ago, and set it down yesterday.  If I could somehow quit working, I could have made much shorter work of reading the book, but such is life.  I did however wait until my husband was out of town on business, so I could give the book the attention it truly deserves, hours of reading, uninterrupted. I settle into Atwood books much the same way one settles into a warm bath.  I slide into each page with care, slowly absorbing the imagery she spins with her pen, sometimes re-reading to ensure the tiniest of detail is unearthed.

The Year of the Flood took me by surprise.  For the first hundred or so pages, I suspected that it was either a prologue or an epilogue to Oryx and Crake, which I read a few years ago.  Had I read it more recently, and my short term memory not been so shoddy, I would have grasped this connection from the very first page.  Now I have more reading to do (or re-reading, rather).  Either way, I would have been wrong, since The Year of the Flood is happening concurrently with Oryx and Crake.  It takes a supremely talented author to tell the same story twice, without it being the same story.  Some (including myself) are even linking the two to The Handmaid’s Tale.

True, all three are dystopic, sociological works at their roots, each depicting a world radically different from the one we live in, but not so radical that it doesn’t seem to be a minute away.  My argument for the connectedness of the The Handmaid’s Tale to the Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood is subtle, and I acknowledge that there is a possibility that I might be grasping at straws.  “Glenn” is a character in the later two, while we are introduced to “Ofglen” as a minor character in The Handmaid’s Tale.  Is the woman, Ofglen of Glenn, the character who brings them all to where they find themselves after the flood?  Is The Handmaid’s Tale really taking place after nearly all of humanity has been destroyed by the flood?  Is this story that of humanity reorganizing itself after the events of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood? Perhaps not, but I won’t restrict my imagination from running away with me.  That’s the beauty of great fiction.

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March 23, 2009

Remembering Ron MacDonald

id2171For many the name Ronald MacDonald might conjur images of a red-haired clown who peddles french fries and cheesburgers.  In my case, it conjurs images of a red-haired teacher who peddled the English language and literature.  Ron MacDonald was one of my most memorable teachers in high school.

He had a huge bookcase in his classroom, filled with books that he lent out liberally to students.  Once I approached him to apologize for being late in returning one particular novel, and he (somewhat jokingly, I imagine) repsonded with “You know, stealing books shouldn’t be criminal.”

Once he called me after class and I was certain I was in trouble (probably pushing the envelop for what was considered acceptable in young literature, I have a bit of a dark streak when it comes to fiction).  Instead, he handed me a well used copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the epic books of my youth.  Although I was always a reader, he became sort of a book pusher, constantly suggesting books I might find interesting.  He also gave me The Giver, which I read cover to cover in one afternoon flat and still remember with alarming clarity (those gray eyes…).

He was an old scotsman I believe, and had a bright red face (that most of us I suspect, attributed to his drinking).  He had a handle bar mustache and a habit of getting food lodged in there, but he would stand in front of the class room and teach us as though we all wanted to grow up to be literary masters.  He took little notice of students who took little notice of him,  but those who expressed an interest in literature were nurtured and constantly supplied with books.

Sadly, he passed away while I was still in university.  Living a life of a bachelor, I like to imagine that he was in fact, married to his books.  To this day, I can look at my bookshelf and see volumes that were passed from his hands to mine and think fondly of all that he taught me.

Update:  Says Beth Button, a classmate of mine and a relative of Mr. MacDonald’s;

He came up in conversation recently. Ronnie was a pretty close family member. Notorious for being eccentric and also for buying every single christmas present in a theme each year. I think if I had known him now, I would have appreciated him so much more than I did as a kid.

A bachelor who died without a will or any real indication of what he wanted. Instead of the traditional funeral, we all gathered at another family member’s house in a circle, with his tobacco pipe, and passed the pipe around as family members had an opportunity to tell a story or share thoughts. In it’s own way it was quite beautiful.

Of course then there was drinking.

March 6, 2009

The Celebrity Book Deal and the Struggling Writer

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

hilton_bookOminous words coming from respected magazine, New York.  With the publishing industry flailing, a writer has got to question her future.  Let’s just forget for a moment, the challenges of finding let alone the right agent, but any agent at all.  Then there is the query letter, and the waiting.  All of that, considering you have your book written first.  The challenges facing a struggling writer in the beginning of their career are steep, and that is under the best of conditions.

So, what does this mean for struggling writers and the publishing industry? It seems that there is a spike in celebrity book deals.  I have no statistical data to support this, only my observations from my daily morning online meandering.  James Franco has just signed with Simon & Schuster to release a collection of short stories.  That’s just the beginning.  In 2008, as the economic crisis that has challenged the publishing industry loomed, Miley Cyrus signed a seven figure book deal with Disney.  At least James Franco is an MFA candidate studying creative writing at NYU and Columbia.  Miley Cyrus is 15 and famous because her daddy had an achy-breaky-heart back in the 1980’s (although it must have got fixed sometime in the 1990’s).  Is it possible to still take the craft seriously when there are thousands of talented writers out there who are sending short after short to literary magazines, searching for an agent, and hoping for any advance at all, while Miss Cyrus gets a million dollars for her memoirs?

Let’s not forget Britney Spears’ $20 Million book deal to spill all of the sordid details of her recent crazy years.  Excuse me, but that is not literature, it’s voyeurism…and not very well cloaked.  What about Kanye West? Or Paris Hilton? Or Kathy Griffin? Or even Sarah Palin?  Musicians, actors, politicians…it seems anyone but a writer can get a book deal these days.

Is this really the way to save the publishing industry; by offering celebrities who already blog, Twitter, star in YouTube videos, films and television, appear on news and talk shows, and are the topic of paparazzi and media everywhere seven or eight figure book deals to write their memoirs?

Of course, I am biased considering that I am a “struggling writer” and not a celebrity.  I understand why the publishing industry is increasing its affinity with celebrities.  They come with a built in audience, just waiting to spend their allowances on the next unauthorized Lindsay Lohan tell-all.

But what of the struggling writer then?  Where will the future of publishing take us? To the Internet? Vanity publishing and self-promotion?  Is this just the right moment for writers to take reins away from powerhouse publishers by getting wise to the opportunities offered by services like Amazon (e.g. Kindle, CreateSpace), blogs, online lit mags, and a new generation of news media like the Huffington Post? No one knows for sure, not even the publishing industry.  One thing is for certain; enough with the celebrity book deals.

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