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Book Review: Moral Disorder and Other Stories by Margaret Atwood

The political turmoil in the world has made me turn this year to Margaret Atwood, who is enjoying a resurgence as a result of her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale being broadcast as a much acclaimed television series. I haven’t reread The Handmaid’s Tale, which does still stick with me from when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, but I have been working my way through her other novels. Given the time constraints in my life, I’ve been picking them out mostly by page length, which brings me to Moral Disorder and Other Stories, a novel told in a series of short stories.

Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the life story of a woman named Nell in short episodes. The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage. In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with. By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents. Although each story could stand alone, together they tell a powerful story of an ordinary, but interesting, life spent in the Canadian countryside and wilderness.

Moral Disorder and Other Stories is very much literary fiction, so some readers may find it frustrating, particularly if they’re not accustomed to the genre or to short story collections. But for readers who are willing to forgo an orderly plot for the love of language, there are many delights to be found in each story’s vivid description and Atwood’s strong voice.

It’s morning. For now, night is over. It’s time for the bad news. I think of the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness, pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing — as the sun comes up — exactly where to drop them. On me, for one.

One theme that has emerged for me, in reading several of Atwood’s early novels, is how prevalent the Canadian wilderness is in her writing. Perhaps because I have always lived either in a city or in its suburbs, there’s something about the wilderness and the farm settings in Moral Disorder and Other Stories that really caught my imagination. Nell and Tig rent a farm and then later purchase their own. They are city people pretending at the rural life, so it is not too surprising that their first set of ducklings are eaten by owls. After this first disastrous foray into livestock, their herd begins to expand in much more productive ways. First there are Tig’s children from his first marriage, who visit on weekends, running wild around the farm and smoking pot in the barn. Then there’s a high-strung dog, a herd of sheep, constantly escaping cows and eventually a fat horse. Atwood doesn’t shy away from the brutality of farm life, as Nell trades in her city upbringing for a rural lifestyle, but she always shows the beauty in it as well.

There’s never been such a lovely spring, Nell thought. Frogs — or were they toads? — trilled from the pond, and there were pussy willows and catkins — what was the difference? — and then the hawthorn bushes and the wild plums and the neglected apple trees came into bloom, and an uneven row of daffodils planted by some long-vanished farmer’s wife thrust up through the weeds and dead grasses besides the drive. Birds sang. Mud dried.

Unfortunately, for me, the last story did a poor job of finishing off the book, because some of the details contradicted and confused the overall narrative arc, which pulled me straight out of the story and had me flipping back pages to see if I had missed something. Perhaps I had – or perhaps the story kept its conflicting details because, like many of the stories in the collection, it was published elsewhere before being collected into this novel. But for all that the novel felt unresolved because of this, I would gladly read the whole novel over to answer my questions.

It’s just that there are so many other Atwood novels that I have yet to read…

Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: 2006
Hardcover: 225 pages
ISBN: 0385503849
Language: English
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

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2016: A Year in Books

Historical Fiction

  • Mozart’s Sister, A.M. Baud
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • War Brides, Helen Bryan
  • At the Edge of the Orchard, Tracy Chevalier
  • The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende
  • The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, Louise Erdich
  • Belgravia, Julian Fellowes
  • Mozart’s Sister, Rita Charbonnier

Perhaps it is the events of 2016 that have thrown me into a desire to see the past brought to life, in only the way that historical fiction can. But, looking at the list, I can see that it’s more that some favorite authors put out books this year.  Tracy Chevalier, author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, wrote a beautiful novel about a terrible family dysfunction that was haunting and terrible, in the most meaningful sense of the word.  Louise Erdich’s The Master Butcher’s Singing Club puts together the story of a town between World Wars, where the daughter of the town’s drunk returns home and finds an unlikely life among German immigrants.  Isabel Allende, who I loved for her novel The House of Spirits, took on the fortunes of two very different families affected by the Japanese internment camps during World War II.  These were all memorable novels, written by authors that are masters of their craft and genre and they move the reader by reminding us of some of the best parts of being human, even when confronted with the worst of history.

Speculative Fiction

In speculative fiction, I spent a year thinking about The Gate to Women’s Country, which is a novel unlike any that I’ve ever read before.  It came to me as a recommendation that I might enjoy and it’s true; it haunted me all year and gave me a lot of food for thought, which is exactly what good speculative fiction should do.  This year also had retreads of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Johnson’s In Another Life.  Both were worth it.

 

Mystery & Crime

  • The Second Stage of Grief, Katherine Hayton
  • Broken Harbor, Tana French
  • The Secret Place, Tana French

Tana French continues to be a favorite writer in crime.  It’s not a genre that I’ve read much of since the days when I shelved books in a mystery section as a volunteer high school student, but I’ve always loved French’s police procedurals for their deep dives into human psychology.  Her newest novel, The Trespasser, came out this year, which I am really looking forward to reading in 2017.

 

 

Contemporary Fiction

  • Three Weissmans of Westport, Cathleen Shine
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  • The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout
  • Her Name is Rose, Christine Breen
  • Monkey Bridge, Lin Cao
  • The Taming of Roses with Thorns, Margaret Dilloway

In contemporary fiction, A Visit from the Goon Squad took the cake, even though I wouldn’t have picked it up without a nudge from a book club.  Egan took on the rock n roll industry, writing a novel of interrelated short stories about the people surrounding an aging record executive.  The experimental nature of the book adds some fun to the story as well, with an entire story told via a Powerpoint slide.  It does actually work.  The Burgess Boys was another favorite, though much of that came from how well Strout managed to peg the New York import’s feelings about New York.  As an aging import myself, I found myself nodding and laughing along with some great passages.

 

Classics

  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I always know that the world is unsettling when I feel a need to reread Pride and Prejudice, which happens at least once every few years.  I’ve spent hours wondering what it is about this particular novel that is so delightful and could probably spend at least a few coffee dates speculating.  I love Austen’s work very much, but Pride and Prejudice is definitely the literary equivalent of your mom’s mac n cheese.  Little Women was a new read for me, though – a novel I’d always meant to get around to and somehow missed.  Although some aspects of the story have aged over the century and a half since it was published, I really understand how it has such a following.  The sequels are on my reading list for the future.

 

I’ve ended this year with the same regret as last year; I simply wish that I had read more.  I still can’t read with Baba around, because if she sees me reading a book without pictures, she pushes it out of my hands and brings me one of my books to read to her.  And so, if we’re counting board books, my number would triple.  I’ve read five books just today, in fact!  And there is much to admire in such simple story telling.  Some of the books that we read are just beautiful, between the artwork and the storytelling.  They may not be designed for adults, but this adult has really come to love books made for very small children.

As it is, this is the time for New Year’s Resolutions and, also, a new Goodreads reading challenge.  I have some books that I’ve really been looking forward to on my next-to-read list, like Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria and Elizabeth Strout’s much-talked-about Olive Kitteridge.  I’m halfway through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and have just begun a biography of the Mozart family by Ruth Halliwell.   I’d love some recommendations — what have you read this year that blew your mind?

 

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2015 Reading List

What a year it has been.  At the beginning of the year, hopeful that motherhood wouldn’t impact my habits too drastically, I set a reading goal of 52 books.  I made it about halfway, with most of my reading being in the time before Baba could grab things out of my hands and knock the books off the shelf.  I came to love magazines this year, for their portability, destructibility (I admit that I underestimated the fascinating power of a crinkling page) and short attention span reads about a world that has become increasingly puzzling.  In the world of magazines, I developed a particular love for Vanity Fair, which deals a lot more substance than I had expected when the issues first started showing up on my doorstep, and The New Yorker, which combines my love of politics, my city and short fiction.

I also developed a critical appreciation for books targeted at young readers.  While I have read Giraffes Can’t Dance and Five Little Ducks far more times than I would care to, I fell in love with the beautiful artwork and simple storytelling of Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day and Chu’s First Day of School.  So has Baba, as it happens, and it makes me smile to see her always pull out my favorite books from her book shelf first.

 

baba_neil
                  Why read only one at a time?

 

Well, here’s to longer fiction in 2016.  Still, there were some very memorable reads this year; books that haunted me for months after I finished reading them.  I am still thinking about the gritty beauty of the Congo in The Poisonwood Bible, the beauty of a kind man in The Orchardist, the tension-building effect of Philippa Gregory’s present tense in The Taming of the Queen and so many other ways that the books I’ve read this year have brought imagination and inspiration into my life.

 

Side_of_paradise

Classics

How do you compare a tell-all of flapper-era literary Paris with the gothic tension of one of the world’s classic horror stories?   Throw in the dusty and cold warfare of For Whom the Bell Tolls and the bitter parody of the Ivy Leagues in This Side of Paradise and my classics reading this year couldn’t be more varied.  Ernest Hemingway was my surprise discovery in graduate school.  I had read him in undergrad, of course, but had missed the intense beauty of his dialogue, no matter how many times I was assigned “Hills Like White Elephants.”  For anyone looking to dig in to Hemingway, I’d also recommend The Sun Also Rises or The Snows of Kilimanjaro” for a shorter introduction to his style.

sisters-of-heart-and-snow

Fiction

The theme of my fiction reading was apparently setting; each of these books left me with such a distinct sense of place that the title is enough to cast me instantly back into the mood of the book.  A Girl with a Pearl Earring was actually my third or fourth reading, because I love the lush and delicate world that Chevalier paints in her coming-of-age story.  The Orchardist is a book that I have thought about all year long, for both the gritty independence and originality of its characters and the beauty of its setting.  I often wonder, as I read adult fiction, what a book would be like if none of the characters had romantic attachments to each other.  What peaks of creativity could we reach if we abandoned the central narrative of so much of our art and fiction?  The Orchardist answers that, while exploring the love of parenthood and friendship, in a truly thought-provoking narrative.

Speculative Fictionstation11

  • No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, James Smythe
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. Mandel
  • Starfarers (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Transition (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Metaphase (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre
  • Nautilus (Starfarer’s Quartet), Vonda MacIntyre

Science fiction took up a larger portion of my reading this year than it usually does, largely because I was swept into the imaginative world of Vonda MacIntyre’s Starfarer’s Quartet.  I’m a bit of a sucker for the idea of space ships that can grow their own environments, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series.  Starfarer reminded me of that, with spaceships that were as much characters of the story as the story itself.   Emily St. Mandel’s Station Eleven is beautifully unique work of fiction, that felt like The Stand retold by artists and sold as literary fiction, while James Smythe’s No Harm Can Come to a Good Man thoughtfully questions our growing relationship and trust of analytic technologies and search engines.

Now, in the beginning of January, I’m midway through Maynard Solomon’s tome-like biography Mozart and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  It’s been a tough month so far, with a lot of stress, and I admit that I’ve been looking for something lighter.  I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Julie Christine Johnson’s In Another Life in February, but can anyone recommend something smart and light to keep me busy until then?

 

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Reading List 2014

This year I started carrying a Bullet Journal to keep myself organized.  On the third page of my journal is a page where I proudly wrote the words “Reading List” back in the beginning of January, since I realized that I’m more or less hopeless at remembering to keep my Goodreads profile up to date.  It turns out that I’m not so great at remembering that I have a reading list in my Bullet Journal either.  Nonetheless, here’s a somewhat informed list of the year’s reading.

General Fiction

The-Round-HouseThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser
The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass
The Bastard by John Jakes
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Love Medicine (PS) by Louse Erdrich
The Children of Liberty by Paulina Simons
Faithful Place by Tana French

There were a few novels in this section that really struck me this year, but the author that I couldn’t get enough of was Louise Erdrich.  This is partially her subject matter, which is always centered around Native American themes.  Not being particularly knowledgeable about contemporary Native American issues and culture, I find her books both educational and compelling for the vivid and interesting world that she creates.  She so honestly represents the pressure of maintaining a traditional culture while integrating into modern American life, while providing an authentic window into a subculture of America that is so poorly represented by our popular culture.  Neither The Round House nor Love Medicine (PS) are books that I am going to forget for a very long time, both for their story lines and for what they were able to teach me about my own country and its history and politics.

Tana French’s Faithful Place is another novel that will stick with me.  Focused on a desperate and hopeless neighborhood in inner-city Dublin during the worst of the late 20th century economic recession, French does her usual magic with deeply character driven murder mysteries.  On top of the socioeconomic backdrop, French provided such an accurate portrayal of what being a child of an alcoholic is like that there were times I had to step away from the novel to shake off my own memories.  I’m not generally a crime reader, but I’ll never pass up a French novel.  She’ll definitely be on my list for 2015.

Likewise, I was really pleased by Julia Glass’s The Widower’s Tale, which tells the story of a retired father who is renegotiating his relationships to his community and children.  It was an absolutely beautiful page-turning story, with just enough tongue-in-cheek New England humor to keep the story light during its darkest points.  I look forward to reading more of Glass’s work in the future.  The Widower’s Tale was as beautifully crafted as it was enjoyable.

 

Classics

Hemingwaysun1

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Mathilda by Mary Shelley
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Floating Opera by John Barth
The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James
Maggie, A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

The majority of this section was read for classwork, though certainly not all of it.  This was a second read of As I Lay Dying and Dracula, as well as my first successful complete read of The Call of the Wild.  Although I enjoyed Dracula just as much as a teenager as I did this year, I did not understand  Faulkner or London on my first readings.  This year, I really appreciated the dark humor of As I Lay Dying and the socialistic underpinnings of The Call of the Wild in a way that I completely missed as a younger reader.

My real love of this section, however, was Ernest Hemingway, who I also read as a teenager and couldn’t understand what the fuss was about.  The Sun Also Rises is a beautiful novel in many ways, but what really struck me was Hemingway’s sense of dialog, which feels both stylized to the time period and extremely realistic.  Reading Jack London and Hemingway together was particularly enjoyable — London is so obviously an influence on Hemingway that reading London gave me a different appreciation of what Hemingway’s thinking might have been as he wrote.  I can only imagine what might have happened if Hemingway and London had ever been in a room together, but I’m certain that it would have been strikingly manly.  Both have a no-nonsense terseness to their writing styles, though I admit that I prefer Hemingway’s often painfully honest emotionalism over London’s brutality.  I’m looking forward to more Hemingway over the coming year.

Essays/Nonfiction

letsexplorediabetesLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
Three Minus One: Stories of Parents’ Loss and Grief, Edited by Sean Hanish
Beethoven by George Alexander Fischer
How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis

I have a good friend that is a huge fan of David Sedaris’s work, so I’m only surprised that it’s taken me so long to pick up one of his books.  Although I still have no idea why the book is named the way it is, despite having watched an interview in which he was asked that precise question, I laughed for nearly the entire read and have passed the book along to multiple people since reading it.  Sedaris is a master of situational comedy and you can’t help but wonder what a day in his life must be like, given some of the situations that he describes as truth.  It’s a book filled with lunatic moments, in which he blends his own sense of the absurd with a deep love of the quirks of the people that he meets.

I read Three Minus One in the same week as Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.  They could not be more different — Three Minus One is a compilation of stories about miscarriage and stillbirth, while the most serious that Sedaris gets is to wonder at his relationship with his father.  Ironically, I was reading it when I took the three pregnancy tests that confirmed that we were now taking our own chances with the pregnancy game.  Out of a certain sense of superstitiousness, I wondered if I should stop reading the book, but found that I couldn’t because while it was a compilation of sad stories, it was also a compilation of stories about the strength of the bond between parents and their children.  Ultimately, it is a celebration of love, through the saddest lens that I can imagine.  Every day that my child has grown, I’ve thought about those stories and been inspired by the strength in them to be a little braver and love a little more.

Fantasy

A Dance with Dragons hb f

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin

I first came across Mary Robinette Kowal through her blog, but when I learned that she had written fantasy novels in an Austen-like universe, that was an irresistable hook.  Taking on Austen’s world is a formidable task — so many have done it that it’s difficult to bring something fresh to the table.  Yet Kowal brought magic into the equation, which made it a fun and light-hearted read that was both authentic and pleasing. The other books in the series are certain to show up on my lists in the future.

Naturally, after last  year’s delving into the Game of Thrones universe, I had to finish off what was written of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I’ve now joined the hordes of Martin fans that are eagerly awaiting the next installment of this series, particularly given the cliffhanger ending.  I have yet to be disappointed by the rich world of intrigue that he creates — I only want more, more more.   Yet I’m surprised to see that this section has so few books in it this year — perhaps my readers could give me some recommendations?

Previous Reading Lists

2013

 

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