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Assembling My Atheneum: Margaret Atwood

February 28, 2012

If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. If you’re curious, you can see everyone I’ve featured so far.

I first read Margaret Atwood in 2002 the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was sixteen, and for my upcoming English class I needed to read a Booker Prize winner; hence, The Blind Assassin was my introduction to her writing. And what an introduction it made! I absolutely loved it (in fact, just thinking about it makes me realise it’s time for a reread), and pretty soon after that I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I think I picked it because it was published the year that I was born, and despite my usual distaste for dystopian novels, it also blew me away. I was in a short story phase at the time, so my next choice was Dancing Girls (her first collection), about which I only have the vaguest impression of being satisfied by but not completely in love with.

Then I managed to forget about Atwood for a few years until a group blogging read of Cat’s Eye. Honestly, I didn’t much care for it; it was good, but definitely my least favourite Atwood. I didn’t give up, though, and Alias Grace soon won me back to the gold! Since then I’ve also read The Penelopiad, The Edible Woman and The Robber Bride, all of which I just adored. I’ve also dipped my toe into her nonfiction by reading her latest essay collection, In Other Words, which definitely impressed me. At this point, I’m a confirmed Atwood fangirl and definitely plan to read everything she’s written! Luckily for me, she has quite a backlist: I’ve still got six novels, eight of her short story collections, and most of her nonfiction writing as well (she’s also a poet, but sad to say, I’m not really a poetry girl). I love it when I fall for a prolific author! ;)

Of course, I know how hopeless I can feel when I want to try out a new-to-me author and they have so many titles that I can’t pick where to start. So let me offer my advice to the Atwood neophyte. If you’re a dystopian lover (I know many bloggers are), you obviously have to try The Handmaid’s Tale: it’s a modern classic for a reason. Historical fiction fans, meanwhile, will find much to enjoy in Alias Grace. If you’re more a fan of literary books, The Blind Assassin has a wonderful metastory structure that will especially appeal to fans of, say, Possession. If you’ve become addicted to Mad Men, The Edible Woman would be a great ‘companion read.’ And for readers who can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, The Robber Bride will delight you.

Ironically, a stranger looking at my bookshelves would never guess my Atwood love; I don’t own a single copy of any of her books! Of course, if I owned them all they’d definitely need their own shelf, maybe even two, but since this is a hypothetical, ideal personal library I’m constructing, I’ll still put myself down for one of each.

What’s your favourite Atwood? Which title would you recommend first to someone who’s never read her?

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. Jane Fairfax permalink
    February 28, 2012 6:08 am

    Lady Oracle–first read when I was 15! Funny, sharp and witty.

  2. February 28, 2012 6:40 am

    I’d say that Alias Grace was my favourite of her novels so far although I have a lot of love for The Handmaid’s Tale, which was my introduction to Atwood and the one I would recommend as the first one people try.

    I think you would really enjoy Surfacing. It isn’t the best of her novels plot-wise but is a though-provoking look at feminism.

    Definitely one of my favourites too, Eva, and I should read her more frequently rather than hoarding her books for a rainy day that never materialises.

  3. Alanna permalink
    February 28, 2012 7:33 am

    The Handmaid’s Tale…it’s powerful and still so relevant. It’s my favourite and the one I would recommend people read first. I also love Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin.

  4. February 28, 2012 7:35 am

    I didn’t really love The Handmaid’s Tale (not a big dystopian fan) so I’ve been hesitant to read any more of her books. I’m glad you described which readers might enjoy which books. I have Alias Grace on my shelf. It might be a good place for me to try again, or The Blind Assassin.

  5. February 28, 2012 8:20 am

    I;ve only read Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad which were v.good. I wasn’t sure about Year of the Flood, thought it was a bit daft especially with all the portmanteaus

  6. February 28, 2012 8:23 am

    I have always had a love-hate relationship with Margaret Atwood. Part of this is because my first introduction to her was the novel Lady Oracle which I absolutely loathed as a 15-year-old (had to read it for English class)… I often have difficulty with her female characters, who I find very prickly and often espousing “feminist” views that I tend to take issue with. But since then I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale (which I did like a lot more), Oryx & Crake (ok, but not mindblowing), The Year of the Flood (better than O&C, but still not my favorite), and Cat’s Eye (really did like this a lot because I think Atwood really nails how vicious young girls can be). I think that to her credit Atwood is a very diverse author who isn’t afraid to shake things up, which makes me think that most readers should be able to find at least one book of hers that they will enjoy, though liking one doesn’t guarantee you will like any others! ;) Not sure which of hers I’ll read next… I’m either leaning towards rereading Handmaid’s Tale or possibly trying Blind Assassin… I guess we’ll just have to see how the spirit moves me!

  7. February 28, 2012 9:04 am

    I have only read The Handmaid’s Tale but have always meant to go back to try another Atwood title, but I’m not sure which one. I do love me some Mad Men so thanks for calling out The Edible Woman as a companion read. I’ll definitely take a look at that one.

  8. Mary Grover permalink
    February 28, 2012 9:29 am

    I think my favorite is “The Robber Bride”; I found the characters fascinating. I also very much like “Alias, Grace” and though I’ve read “Handmaid’s Tale” it’s not my favorite. I read “Oryx and Crake” which was amazing and disturbing. I think I found it so disturbing that I haven’t been able to tackle “After the Flood” yet. I think I need to prepare myself for it. I haven’t read her short stories recently but I really liked the collections “Bluebeard’s Egg” and “Wilderness Tips.”
    Even if you’re not really into poetry you might want to find her poem “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”. I really like it and it made me think of the woman in “The Robber Bride” who is a military historian.

  9. February 28, 2012 9:52 am

    I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments; I’ve been curious about her for a while now and have no idea where to start!

  10. Urbana permalink
    February 28, 2012 10:09 am

    Lady Oracle! It’s funny and yet really makes you think.

  11. February 28, 2012 10:42 am

    I love Alias Grace the best…though I really like The Edible Woman and Surfacing and Bluebeard’s Egg, for different reasons as well. Glad to hear you adore Atwood like I do :)

  12. February 28, 2012 11:01 am

    I love Margaret Atwood, not just because her books are so good but also as a person she just impresses and amazes me. I am not sure how many of her novels I have read but its lots. I have been least impressed with The Year of the Flood, though I still liked it, if I am honest and yet I know the third in that series is forthcoming, whihc reminds me I must read Oryx ad Crake.

    My favourites ooooh thats tough. I think I would go with ‘The Handmaids Tale’ because it was my first Atwood love and they say first loves last, its true. Next would be ‘The Blind Assassin’ which could be one of the most perfect books ever, its just incredible. Then ‘ats Eye’ for making me feel almost physically sick on behalf of the main character because of childhood bullying. I empathised with that book in a very strange way, it deepy affected me and took me back to uncomfortable times in my youth.

    I must try and finish The Robber Bride, I gave up on it and I am not quite sure why. Alias Grace will most likely be my next Atwood read I think.

  13. February 28, 2012 11:06 am

    I’ve only read two by Atwood-Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, but I loved both of them. I picked up a few others when Borders was going out of business, so I have a few to last me (I have Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Bodily Harm, and Year of the Flood). I can’t wait to read more by her in the future!

  14. February 28, 2012 11:11 am

    I have a very hit-or-miss relationship with Margaret Atwood. She is a famous Canadian author that I want to love, but it has been rocky. I tried to read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school for fun, but ended up not reading it until it was required reading in one of my university courses. Once I got through it I really liked the book, but it was getting through in the first place that was the problem. I have started and stopped so many of her books over the years. I have only read to completion The Handmaid’s Tale, Year of the Flood, Oryx & Crake, and The Penelopiad. And her most recent essay collection I read last month. The Blind Assassin I know for sure I read half of an then abandoned. Alias Grace I started and just couldn’t get into it. It’s sad. I need to make more of an effort with her.

  15. Michelle permalink
    February 28, 2012 12:25 pm

    I have really love the Atwood I’ve read, especially Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, both, but they are such different kinds of books. I have Blind Assassin on my shelf–this is prompting a return to her. The New Yorker also recently published a short story by her–it was fascinating and creepy and wonderful all at the same time, about an older woman on a cruise who bumps into a man who sexually assaulted her as a young girl. Recommended!

  16. February 28, 2012 12:26 pm

    I’ve read four of Atwood’s books so far–two fiction, two non–and have had varied luck with her. I loved one of the nonfiction titles (IN OTHER WORLDS) and really liked one of the novels (THE PENELOPIAD), but the other two didn’t quite do it for me. They weren’t bad, by any means, but I had difficulty connecting with them on the same level as everyone else. I ought to dive back in and read more of her stuff as a tie-breaker.

  17. February 28, 2012 12:45 pm

    I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale but have several others of hers on my shelf. I suppose rather than recommending any myself I should recommend that I start reading some of the ones that I have! :)

  18. Chelsea permalink
    February 28, 2012 1:12 pm

    While I can’t say that I’m necessary a ‘fangirl’, as I’ve only read a few of her works, I will say that everything I’ve picked up by Atwood has impressed me and left me wanting more! I read The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, for my independent choice in a unit on dystopian writing, and I adored it. It left me looking at my own world in a slightly different way, wondering if maybe we were closer to the world Atwood created than I thought. A few years later (I can’t believe it was that long!) I picked up Oryx and Crake, and while the character or Oryx confused me and left me a bit frustrated at times, I loved the larger concepts and ideas behind the book. It’s only been those two so far, but after hearing more about Alias Grace and The Robber Bride, I’m excited to pay Atwood another visit!

  19. February 28, 2012 1:26 pm

    I’ve always been a fan of Margaret Atwood. My favorites are some of the ones you mentioned…Blind Assassin and The Edible Woman…but I also love a less known one called Surfacing (another commenter mentioned it). It contains a sentence I will likely remember until my grave ‘The trouble some people have being German, I have being human’. How powerful…especially considering the circumstances surrounding that thought.

  20. February 28, 2012 1:43 pm

    My favorite is The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s the first of her novels I ever read. A teacher on a feminist classics course mentioned it and I just had to read it. It’s also the only novel by Atwood I’ve reread.
    I’m actually half way through In Other Worlds just now. :)

  21. February 28, 2012 3:32 pm

    Alias Grace is one of my favorite novels period. I liked The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. I read Surfacing and don’t remember it. (Yikes) And I have The Handmaid’s Tale beside my bed waiting on me.

  22. February 28, 2012 9:23 pm

    I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was very good indeed but haven’t had any luck with Atwood subsequently — I’ve tried Alias Grace TWICE and not been able to finish it, and Cat’s Eye once. But The Blind Assassin sounds like it could be the one for me. I did like Possession and I love metafiction.

  23. February 29, 2012 2:18 pm

    She’s one of my favourites, too, so what a pleasure to read your post today. (And her poetry might surprise you; The Door has some real gems in it, and all the same qualities that her prose has!) For someone who’s never read her, I’d probably recommend Cat’s Eye, but I know it is the exact wrong book for some readers, and sometimes I suggest Alias Grace instead, which obviously you enjoyed more than’s CE!

  24. February 29, 2012 8:06 pm

    I also read The Blind Assassin followed by The Handmaid’s Tale. Then it was The Penelopiad and Alias Grace. I have to say I really, really liked Alias Grace, but Handmaid is so classic and so, just, iconic, really, that I don’t think it can be beat. I am also looking forward to reading more Margaret Atwood!

  25. March 1, 2012 5:48 pm

    I just had to comment because a) I love Margaret Atwood and b) I started reading her in almost the exact same way, in 2001/2002 between my second last and last years of high school reading The Blind Assassin! I think I also read Alias Grace around the same time though, and I’m not 100% sure which came first, though I know I definitely preferred The Blind Assassin (I also love Possession).

    Although I haven’t loved all her books, I wanted to join in the Margaret Atwood love! The Handmaid’s Tale was also amazing, I read it for a subject on Utopias/Dystopias.

  26. March 1, 2012 7:34 pm

    I picked up her book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, for like $6 at a Barnes & Noble. It remains one of my favorite books on the craft of writing. Atwood is great!

  27. March 3, 2012 5:42 am

    I love this post! So far I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake. The first two blew me away and Atwood has quickly become one of my favourite authors.

    After reading this post, I think it is time to choose another to read!

  28. March 6, 2012 2:00 pm

    I’ve still only read The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, disappointing I know. I clearly have to read more by her! Glad to see her on your Atheneum list and reminding me to read more by her. Recently a theatre in Toronto performed a play of Penelopiad. I’m still upset I was away the entire run and missed it!

  29. Ash permalink
    March 6, 2012 3:36 pm

    Your post just reminded how I’ve picked The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale only to abandon them midway. I’ve added them to my TBR pile again :) and hope to pick them up sometime during later part of 2012.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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