Reading Through the Bookcase: the Margaret Atwood Books

Bookcase reading: Margaret Atwood

Same photo as last time, but note the position of the hardcover.

So yes. While starting to read through my fiction bookcase, I finished the three Margaret Atwood books that I own. I have now switched to the science fiction & fantasy bookcase for a few books (one Douglas Adams and at least the first of Asimov’s Foundation books). But I noticed something interesting while reading Atwood. I wonder if this is going to happen more often.

I could almost literally see her writing style, her craft, improving and maturing as I went. I should mention that I neither read the books in chronological order nor in alphabetical. Basically, The Robber Bride is a tall hardcover, so it stands flush against the left edge of the bookcase, so the adjacent, lower paperbacks have a consistent flat space upon which I can put other books. (See the photo.) So I read Bride first, followed by The Edible Woman (written earlier in Atwood’s career) and then Alias Grace (written later, in the mid-90s).

I loved The Robber Bride both times I’ve read it. I was sort of chuckling, as I went, how most of the novel is backstory. As you gradually learn the backstory of all three main characters, the plot that’s taking place in the “present” becomes so layered and rich. I love how she develops each of the three women, and how different they are from each other. And I love how they’ve grown by the end. You kind of fear for them at the beginning, but you’re very impressed by the end.

Going from that to The Edible Woman was a surprising experience. It seemed to clear to me that Ms. Atwood’s style and command was still just developing, in this earlier novel, and it was not yet “there.” The ideas are good, but she had learned more subtlety later. Where the underlying ideas were implicit in The Robber Bride, they felt (to me, at least) a bit too obvious and overworked in The Edible Woman.

And interestingly, I could even see how some spelling conventions had changed since the earlier publication. I can’t remember the specifics now, but there might even have been a spelling like “to-day” in there, which was how that word started out. Certainly, some word combinations were hyphenated then that aren’t now. (An example of the sort of thing I mean would be something like “garden-party,” which might have been hyphenated at that time but would no longer be hyphenated now.) So the language fiend in me was fascinated by that.

One thing that was consistent between these first two books was the shift of point of view. In Bride, it was the shift among the three main female characters, both in the present and in their past. That was masterfully done. In Woman, it was a shift between first person and third person, from the same person’s point of view. That, too, was excellent. That shift clearly showed the stages at which the main character was someone exercising a degree of control of her own life (first person) compared to a stage at which she became more of an object whose role was determined by others’ expectations (third person). That was very well done.

There are shifts of point of view in Alias Grace too, the third novel. And reading this one, I just wanted to weep, it was so very well done. This novel was written by someone with full mastery of her craft, in all its subtlety and layering and wordsmithing. I had read the other two novels once before, but this was the first time I read this one. And it was like a crescendo, not just because I could see how skillful and masterful Ms. Atwood was, but also because, you know, I loved the story itself. Everything about this book, at least for me, was wonderfully done.

So that was the first three fiction books. The next author, also with three books that I own, was Jane Austen. And I wasn’t really in the mood for that era of things after Ms. Atwood, which was why I switched to the SF&F bookcase for a bit. But I’d say that Margaret Atwood got this project off to a wonderful start.

Reading Through One’s Entire Bookcase

Photo of three Margaret Atwood books, The Robber Bride, The Edible Woman, and Alias Grace

The Robber Bride, The Edible Woman, & Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

So I’ve decided to start a project recently. We’ll see how long I can keep it up.

The idea is that I want to read all the books I’ve actually got. I do like the fact that in my collection of 2000 (probably more by now) books, there are many that I haven’t yet read. This means that when I’m casting about for the next thing I want to read, there will always be something new available. On the other hand, there are some books I’ve had for several years, and I haven’t read them yet. So I decided to see whether I could just start at the beginning of the first shelf of the first bookcase and just go across the shelf, reading all the books on it, and then move to the second shelf, and so on.

I’ve just finished my third book on the first shelf. Three Margaret Atwood books, as it happens. I’ll write another post about those later, but it occurred to me when I was starting the second one that I have a whole bookcase full of science fiction and fantasy books as well, and it wasn’t part of the original idea. So now I’ve decided to alternate between them.

And then I have that bookcase that is mostly history books. And that other one, two of whose shelves are entirely language textbooks or “teach-yourself-[insert language here]” books. I think I’m going to have to exempt those. I can’t be expected to become fluent in Italian or Klingon or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics before I can move on to the next book, surely.

This is going to be more complicated than I thought. And what happens when I come to a book that makes me think, “I am really not in the mood for that author/book” right now? We shall see. I might already have reached that point if I actually had a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it once, was very glad I read it, and don’t want to read it again. If I have any other books like that in my collection…hm. I might need to donate them somewhere.

But anyway, after three books, I’m still with the program. The next book, switching to the SF&F bookcase, is Douglas Adams’ The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul. Big switch from Margaret Atwood!

Loving books first by cover alone

I saw a very interesting request on Facebook today: “Name a book you picked up because of the cover.” (The request was from Kepler’s Books, in Menlo Park, CA.) I have my own version of the request, which adds, “…which you ended up loving.”

I have definitely been influenced by book covers. My prime example of this is when I saw The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, with cover art by Martin Springett:

Original book cover for the book, The  Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I don’t know just what it was about that cover, but I saw it, and the various images made my heart absolutely sing. I peeked just briefly into the book, but bought it primarily because I Wanted That Cover. Here is a later version of the entire cover, back and front. The book I bought looked just like this, except that the title was positioned as in the first picture:

Back and front cover of the book, "The Summer Tree," by Guy Gavriel Kay

There was something magical about that cover — and it exactly matched what was inside. So this was a case where three things came together. The magic of the cover touched the yearning for that magic in me, and the story itself fulfilled that yearning. When I read the book, as I’ve often said, I felt like I had “light flowing through my veins.”

I loved the cover for this and the other two books in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy so much that I have the three posters in large size, signed by the artist. And I once saw the originals (they’re really big) hanging in the author’s home. The goal of the publishers–that the cover should attract readers so that they’ll buy the book–was certainly successful in my case.

Publishers often change the covers of such books, eventually, to try to attract different readers and give the books new life. The next cover for this book that I was aware of was this:

Second cover of "The Summer Tree," by Guy Gavriel Kay

Do I also own the set of three books with this and the other two new covers? Yes. Would I have bought the book if this had been the original cover? Probably not, though I like the covers well enough. And would I have bought the book for the first time if the original cover had been the one below? Not in a million years. (I kind of think of it as the “What were they thinking?” cover. They did that ordinary, unimaginative, boring cover to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Canadian publication??)

Twentieth anniversary Canadian cover of "The Summer Tree," by Guy Gavriel Kay

It’s fascinating what will attract us to a book so we’ll be ready to look inside it and find out whether or not we want to buy it.


Going Beyond the Fairy Tales with Jacob Grimm

Photo of Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

I recently got to download a Grimm book!

No doubt we’ve all heard of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a collection of German tales compiled by the “brothers Grimm,” Jacob and Wilhelm, originally published in 1812. This collection has been reproduced and reprinted and added to and told and told again, over and over for two centuries, now. While many of the tales have now been sanitized, removing their original darker elements, in their original form, they reflected something of the true depth of real myth. It’s a collection everyone should become familiar with.

But this is not that book.

In university, years ago and to my joy and wonder, I discovered a set of four volumes entitled, Teutonic Mythology, translated from the originalĀ Deutsche Mythologie, put together by Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two brothers. He was a philologist — a studier of words and their history — as well as a jurist and mythologist. And his extensive studies of many languages and customs allowed him to trace links between the myths and mythical tales and practices of many European countries.

I have been a fanatic about myth since I became conscious. And as in all things, the older the traces of myth are, the more fascinated and enchanted I am. So I read as much as I could of the four volumes, back in my university days. And I have spent a couple of decades since then, trying to find them again. Somewhere, anywhere!

And now, through various downloading sites for more historic and even ancient books, and through Google Books, which seems to have been the main digitizer, I have finally found them. Hurray! I’ve downloaded all four volumes and am well into the first.

But here’s the thing. Two things, actually. First, Grimm was one of those who just assumed that the people reading his work knew the languages he quoted. So as he gives examples of ancient god names and sacred terms that seem to carry through from one language and culture to another (Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, etc.) — he doesn’t often make a translation. So I’m picking out a few words I recognize here and there or tracing the links I can detect, without actually knowing what the quotes are saying. Ah, those nineteenth century scholars. (Theologians and philosophers did the exact same thing.)

But there’s something funny too. Something that shows why not everything can be automated and why humans will always be necessary. I guess Google Books’ digitization process is meant to be kind of automatic. But the print may be faded or slightly unclear in places, in whatever books were used in this particular process. Or the digitizing program just didn’t recognize a symbol and came up a sort of “best guess.”

So take the word “Roman.” Much of the time, it reads “Eoman” in this book. Or, occasionally, “Boman.” It took me a while to recognize what was going on; I mean, this is talking about Germanic, Teutonic, Scandinavian stuff — remember Eomer and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings? Yeah. So it took a few times before I realized, “Oh, ROMAN!”

Then there is “aU.” Which, it turns out, is a frequent instance of the word “all.” And what the heck is a “Uack hull,” which is being led to sacrifice?? Why, a “black bull,” of course. So here I am, trying to piece together words from fairly ancient Teutonic languages while also trying to decipher Google’s digitization mistakes. It’s kind of funny.

But for the most part, though, I’m doing it. And I am justĀ loving finding out anew all those ancient linguistic connections and the earliest cultural traces of what are probably my favorite deities from any pantheon! (Loki is my patron god, after all; his ancient day is my birthday.)

Thank goodness for the Internet, and for Google’s digitization of a set of books I have looked for, like, forever! Rediscovering all these things is really wonderful. Or should I say, “reaUy womerful!”

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