Atwood's voice is unique and Curious Pursuits is a compulsively readable melange of non-fiction, which instructs and delights
Margaret Atwood is armed with weapons mightier than a double-edged sword. The extraordinary imagination, style and intelligence with which she wields her pen - combining powerful words, her trademark irony and sardonic sense of humour - has ensured her position as an international doyenne of contemporary writing. In the introduction to Curious Pursuits, her most recent collection of essays, she writes:
Why is this book called Curious Pursuits? 'Curious' describes both my habitual state of mind - a less kind word would be 'nosy' - as well as the subject matter of some of these writings. Like Alice, I've become curiouser and curiouser myself, and the world has done the same. Another way of putting it: if something doesn't arouse my curiosity, I'm not likely to write about it. Though perhaps 'curious' as a word carries too light a weight: my curiosities are (I hope) not idle ones. 'Passionate' might have been more accurate; however, it would have given a wrong impression, and disappointed a few men in raincoats.At sixteen, the Canadian author explains, she had already "decided to be a dedicated novelist - a very dedicated one, with the resulting lung illnesses, unhappy affairs, alcoholism, and early death that would surely follow - but I knew I would have to have a day job in order to afford the squalid flat and the absinthe".
Curious Pursuits is an accumulation of her forays into journalism, collected and published in the United Kingdom for the first time. The result is a literary treasure trove of multifaceted gems: book reviews, condensed lectures and speeches, personal anecdotes and obituaries for some of her friends and contemporaries. Many of these compositions have been published in the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, and the Guardian. Others were written as introductions and afterwords to works by fellow writers, such as Lucy Maud Montgomery's much-loved Anne of Green Gables.
With wry humour, Ms Atwood acknowledges four Irish women on a train from Galway to Dublin, overheard discussing her books.
'The last ones have been rather long,' they said. Right after this I became violently ill and spent the rest of the trip locked in the washroom - some of us are sensitive to criticism, or maybe it was the injudicious carrot juice - but I would like these commentators to know that I took their comments to heart. Some of the pieces in this book are quite short. So I've tried.Curious Pursuits, sub-titled Occasional Writing, is divided into three parts: 1970 to 1989, 1990 to 1999, and 2000 to 2005. I read the book from cover to cover and was glad not to have missed a sentence. Some readers may prefer to ignore the chronological order and approach essays which cover particular areas of interest first.
Part One collects pieces from the seventies and eighties, ending with the year the Berlin Wall came down. The author describes how The Women's Movement had kicked off in 1968 and was at full gallop during this time. Any woman who had ever set pen to paper was being viewed in a fresh light, "the red-eyed hue of rabid feminism". Much of this section is concerned with relations between men and women, perceptively and amusingly discussed in gender-based pieces such as "The Curse of Eve - Or, What I Learned in School" and "Writing the Male Character".
Book reviews in the first section include Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971 - 1972 by Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters and The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser. Ms Atwood frankly confesses she doesn't review books she doesn't like,
although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader. But either the book is really bad, in which case no one should review it, or it's good but not my cup of tea, in which case someone else should review it.I think she has a point.
Part Two covers the nineties.
1990 was supposed to be the first year of a brand new era. The Soviet Union was disintegrating. Germany was reunifying, a thing we thought we'd never witness in this lifetime. The West, and that body of practices and values attached to something called 'capitalism' or 'the free-market economy', seemed triumphant. It was not yet foreseen that, with the disappearance of its enemy, the Western moral balloon would lose helium: it's great to champion freedom in the absence of it, but hard to feel hand-on-heart noble about shopping malls and parking lots and the right to kill yourself through overeating.Aside from her well-deserved reputation as an accomplished and sagacious literary critic, Atwood is deeply concerned about the worsening ecological and political crises facing the world. Her penetrating social commentary challenges readers with questions they will ponder long after putting this book down.
For me a highlight of the middle section is the essay "Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour in the Creation of Literature", which ends with a quotation from 1912 by Dame Rebecca West: "Ladies of Great Britain … we have not enough evil in us." As I read this, I could picture the author's mischievous Siamese cat smile lighting up her face.
The other highlight is "Nine Beginnings", Ms Atwood's personal reflections on why she writes: "I've begun this piece nine times. I've junked each beginning. I hate writing about my writing." Yet she does it so well and may be at her most lyrical when talking about her relationship with words - "their inertias, their biases, their insufficiencies, their glories".
She is rumoured to have a sign hanging in her study which reads: "Wanting to know an author because you like his work is like wanting to know a duck because you like paté." Despite her legendary acerbic wit and reputation as an interviewer's nightmare, the author offers her reader glimpses of her frailties in Curious Pursuits. She can be surprisingly endearing:
There are the risks you take and your loss of nerve, and the help that comes when you're least expecting it. There's the laborious revision, the scrawled-over, crumpled-up pages that drift across the floor like spilled litter. There's the one sentence you know you will save.Part Three continues with the advent of the new millennium, through the 9/11 catastrophe, to the present. Among my favourite pieces here are the serious and heartfelt "Letter to America" and "Mortifications", a humorous and self-deprecating look at the humiliations Atwood has endured as a writer. She has also included a beautiful obituary written for Pulitzer prize-winner Carol Shields, previously published in the Guardian in July 2003 after her friend's death.
Atwood's voice is unique and Curious Pursuits is a compulsively readable melange of non-fiction, which instructs and delights. The author is a distinct presence throughout this volume, allowing readers some insight into her world, her likes and dislikes and what she deems important. Her essays are neither rarefied discourses nor glamorous celeb-type articles. This "old-age pensioner", as she likes to call herself, is real, sharp and often deeply funny.
Whenever I resolve to write less and do something healthful instead, like ice dancing - some honey-tongued editor is sure to call me up and make me an offer I can't refuse. So in some ways this book is simply the result of an under-developed ability to say no.Whatever the answer, Curious Pursuits will captivate its readers.
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1939, and grew up in northern Quebec and Ontario, and later in Toronto. She has lived in numerous cities in Canada, the United States and Europe. Atwood is the author of more than forty books of fiction, short stories, children's stories, poetry and critical essays. She has received many literary awards. The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace and Oryx and Crake were all shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, which she won in 2000 with The Blind Assassin. Her most recent collection of poetry, Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995, was published in 1998. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing was published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. Margaret Atwood lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson.
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