Book 4, Wilderness Tips (1991) – Margaret Atwood
From the back cover:
“Some writers create rare moments when they change the way we look at ourselves and the world. Margaret Atwood does so consistently. In this extraordinary collection of short stories–some poignant, some scathingly humourous, all brilliant and oddly disturbing–she takes us into the strange and secret places of the heart and in the process reveals truths that cut to the bone.”
I enjoyed most of the stories and really liked a few. There were none that I really disliked. However, I imagine I would have liked them better had I read them separately at different times. They did have a kind of sameness about them that was apparent when read in one big clump.
- True Trash (appeared in Saturday Night)
I found this to be a good opening to the collection. I especially liked the melding of past and present and the viewpoints of the characters–it was almost like a chain or a relay as one perspective was exchanged with another. It gave me hope for the rest of the stories. I needed some hope as I was totally disappointed by the last collection of Canadian short stories (Mount Appetite) that I read.
- Hairball (appeared in The New Yorker)
Yuck. The subject of the story that is, not the story itself. A woman keeping a pretty disgusting ovarian cyst (as big as a coconut) in a jar of formaldehyde on her mantelpiece. Ewww. What’s worse is what she does with it in the end. I’m sure there’s a bit of black humour in this somewhere.
ETA: I think I’m enjoying this story more a few days after having read it than I did during or shortly after reading it.
- Isis in Darkness (appeared in Granta UK)
I really liked this one, but I’m not sure why. Maybe the descriptions of Richard’s image of Selena are so appealing to the Pagan in me.
ETA: I saw in the Wikipedia article that Selena is based on Gwendolyn MacEwan, a prize winning poet and novelist that’s not on my list. I think I’ll have to add her.
- The Bog Man (appeared in Playboy)
I like how this story works on two different levels: on the surface there’s a student who gets drawn into an affair with her professor (I knew someone who was in love with one of her professors and Atwood has got the feel exactly right); on the other level, the story is about how we write and rewrite our own experiences.
- Uncles (appeared in Saturday Night)
Atwood shows great skill in compressing a person’s life into such a short few pages, while retaining so much information that we can see how current events are shaped by that character’s past. To see Vedge only as a mentor and a friend when really he’s jealous and vindictive is a product of Susanna’s “good” relationship with her uncles and bad one with her aunts. Very intriguing–we usually think only experiences of being traumatised cause harm, but in this case her naivete concerning Vedge was helped by the way her uncles treated her and her mother.
- The Age of Lead (appeared in Toronto Life, Lear’s, The New Statesman)
So far, this is my least favourite story. I didn’t care for the characters and there wasn’t much of a plot. Also, the recovery of Torrington’s body seemed quite a lot like that of the Bog Man’s body in the earlier story.
- Death by Landscape (appeared in Saturday Night, Harper’s, New Woman)
This story was great. Again, there is that juxtaposition of past experiences with current emotions. I think this is my favourite of the stories in the collection so far. The actions or inactions of one moment can change one’s life forever. So what really happened to Lucy? No splash–surely the other campers would have heard if she had fallen or jumped? I also liked the descriptions of the Group of Seven paintings.
- Weight (appeared in Chatelaine, Cosmopolitan, Vogue)
The only story in the whole book that’s told from the first person. A nice refreshing change. Very sad though.
- Wilderness Tips (appeared in Saturday Night; The New Yorker)
This is just the kind of story I don’t care for. It’s kind of like the ending leaves you flat. So what happens? Not in a Lady and the Tiger kind of way, but the kind of “so what happens” for which the answer is “I don’t really care.” Ah well, still– I liked the great-grandfather watching everything from his portrait. I also liked the switch of perspective from George to Portia.
- Hack Wednesday (appeared in The New Yorker)
I liked this story a lot. The long-married character of the relationship between Marcia (a character based on June Callwood) and Eric. The undercurrent of Canadian-American relations. It would be intriguing to read a sort of updated version of this element of the story.