Throwback Thursday: THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

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Throwback Thursday is a periodic feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today. The first and only installment in this series so far took aim at the Twilight novels.

Today I’m featuring a very different book: The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s 2001 novel about two heiress sisters, Laura and Iris, who navigate privilege, patriarchy, and regret in Canada through the 1930s to today. It’s heart-rending from the very first line, narrated by Iris:

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.

From there, it never stops being deeply sad, although it can also be very funny, and at time it seethes with a rage so intense that it’s terrible (in that word’s original sense of inspiring terror) to read.

The Blind Assassin Cover
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a brunette woman with a 1930s bob haircut and slinky black dress looking over her shoulder at the viewer.

In addition to the story of Laura and Iris, The Blind Assassin also contains many fictional news stories and a novel-within-a-novel. I normally dislike the use of pretend news stories in books: it’s very rare for an author to get the tone of a real newspaper story just right, and the information they’re trying to convey often comes across as painfully obvious and hack-y. Luckily, Atwood nails it. I can’t even imagine how many 1930s-40s news stories she had to read in order to get the imitation right.

But it’s the novel-within-a-novel that’s the star of the show, and rightly so: it’s so pitch-perfect that, even if it were read separately from the rest of the book, it would still be achingly lovely and memorable. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed couple–a wealthy woman and a working-class man on the run–who are having an affair. Together, they tell each other a hard-boiled science fiction story set on a faraway planet where a decaying society is ruled by a cruel and corrupt upper class.

In that world, a blind assassin is assigned to kill a mute woman who’s intended to be brutally sacrificed. Instead, they fall in love and plot the kind of escape that the unnamed lovers telling the story cannot.

We’re told that this novel-within-a-novel–titled The Blind Assassin, of course–was written by Laura before her suicide at the end of World War II. Iris, by now an old woman, guards her sister’s legacy and begins to write her own story (though at first it’s unclear whom she’s writing to).

The Blind Assassin Cover 2
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a 1930s-era woman wearing a fur coat against a light blue background. The woman’s face is photorealistic but the fur coat is only sketched in.

The reason The Blind Assassin has meant so much to me over the years (it’s been my favorite novel since I was 14) is because, in addition to being beautifully written, it’s a painful reminder of how complicity and cowardice can destroy a life. Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, also tackles this, but where The Handmaid’s Tale is ferocious, The Blind Assassin is slippery. The consequences of complicity in The Handmaid’s Tale are as subtle as a cleaver; in The Blind Assassin, they’re more like those mythical razors embedded in sweet candy apples at Halloween.

Iris is difficult, without being so boneheaded that I stop being able to understand or support her. Vain, frightened, and proud, she clings to what she knows and resists introspection. She wants the cachet of being a class traitor but can’t tolerate the discomfort of actually doing the betraying. She fails to protect Laura again and again, culminating in Laura’s suicide; she fails to protect herself, and you get the sense that it’s on purpose, as a sort of pointless punishment in place of the substantive change she desperately needs to make instead.

The Blind Assassin Cover 3
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a 1930s woman wearing an elegant hat and pearls. It’s a close-up of her face, set against a dark background.

Most of all, it’s the very end of The Blind Assassin that haunts me (page 521 of my battered paperback):

What is it that I’ll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn’t yours to bestow. Only a listener, perhaps; only someone who will see me. Don’t prettify me though, whatever else you do: I have no wish to be a decorated skull.

But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that–if anywhere–is the only place I will be.

Like Iris, I often write simply because I want a listener; I want to exist somewhere, anywhere, outside of my own head. The Blind Assassin reminds me that I can do more than simply leave my words and deeds to someone else. I have a choice: speak now or speak later, long after the time to make a change. I hope I always choose to speak now.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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The Handmaid’s Tale gets a graphic novel. What do you think?

I’m not sure how I missed this news when it was announced earlier, but it turns out Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a graphic novel adaptation. It hits shelves tomorrow and looks absolutely gorgeous: head over to io9 to see the exclusive images from behind this edition’s enigmatic cover.

Mild spoilers for the original novel below. I’m not spoiling the ending of Offred’s story, but I will be discussing details of the novel’s structure.

The Handmaid's Tale Graphic Novel Cover.jpeg

I am fascinated by adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale because, in typical Margaret Atwood fashion, the original novel had such an unusual format. At the end of the novel, we discover that Offred had been telling her own story via cassette tape, and that we had been reading the “transcripts” of these tapes as collected by historians.

I’ve always thought that this detail is what made The Handmaid’s Tale so haunting. In the epilogue, the horrifying events we experienced through Offred’s eyes in Gilead are being dissected, sympathetically but distantly, by academics hundreds of years in the future, in a similar fashion to how many people discuss horrifying events like the Spanish Inquisition or the transatlantic slave trade today.

It’s also a detail that loses some of its magic as soon as we get visuals, whether that’s via a graphic novel or hit TV show. You can’t exactly transmit images via audio, so it’s hard to maintain the cassette tape conceit. That gives the story a myopic immediacy that I don’t love.

Despite that gripe, which I realize is pretty pedantic–I just love that original ending so much–I’m very interested in the graphic novel. I sometimes struggle to read graphic novels because my eyes just can’t seem to follow the panels correctly, but the panels previewed over at io9 seem crisp and deceptively simple in a way that I find really appealing.

The graphic novel’s art and adaptation are by Canadian artist Renée Nault, who chose not to watch Hulu’s TV adaptation in favor of forging her own visual style and version of the story. That also appeals to me, since I thought the TV show had some weird plot holes (its refusal to engage with racial inequality in a far right society like Gilead being the biggest one, I thought) and was definitely too violent for me to stomach onscreen.

My personal copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a yellowed, battered, much-thumbed trade paperback that reflects my love of this seminal novel in one way: every read and re-read are inscribed on the pages through every dog-ear, taped-up tear, and tea stain.

It looks like the graphic novel is going to reflect my love in another, equally important way: it turns a beloved book into an art object, something to be not only read, but admired page by page.

I think I’ll be heading to the bookstore for a copy when it drops tomorrow, March 26.

What do you think of this graphic novel adaptation? Are you excited, or do you have reservations? What do you think of Renée Nault’s art style? (I think her work looks a little bit like the illustrations you see in children’s books and especially children’s Bibles, which I think is an intriguing choice for the material.)

You can order The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel from the Penguin Random House website, which features handy links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other booksellers. You can also check it out over at Goodreads.

And don’t forget to check out io9’s exclusive look at the book, without which I would not have been able to write this post.

Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.

Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, and more will bury their new novels for 100 years. What do you think about the Future Library Project?

Yesterday I was reading the Literary Hub newsletter (ever a goldmine) and ran across the news that a new novel by Han Kang, along with work by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, and Sjón, will be part of an art project called “Future Library.” Scottish artist Katie Paterson has asked that no one see the new books except for the authors themselves. The new novels won’t be read for 100 years, when a grove of Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 will mature and be cut down in order to print them.

nature forest trees fog
Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

My first reaction is…what?! This seems terribly gimmicky to me, like most time capsule projects do. Who will be in charge of making sure this actually happens in 100 years? Will these authors even be remembered? Will anyone care? (Even remarkably popular, talented, and prolific authors aren’t guaranteed to age well in people’s memories.)

But maybe that’s a selfish reaction, and one that Paterson is deliberately trying to provoke. I can’t help but feel like something is being stolen from me. I especially don’t like the idea of missing out on new Han Kang, who wrote one of my favorite novels, The Vegetarianas well as Human Acts.

What say you, readers? Will this art project be an aching testament to the power of time and imagination? Or is it a waste of perfectly good words from some of the greatest novelists working today?

You can read more about the Future Library Project over at The GuardianHan Kang had some especially lovely comments about why she’s excited about the project–even if I’m still feeling grouchy about not getting to read this newest novel of hers.

What books do you turn to when you’re sad?

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me. My chronic pain has been especially severe and, well, chronic lately, and world news has felt especially bad. It got me thinking: what books help you cope when things are difficult?

I think there are two components that make a book a good companion when you’re sad: catharsis and comfort. Cathartic books help me to process what I’m feeling, while comforting books help me to forget for awhile. I’ve found I need both kinds, although I tend toward catharsis. (My family jokes–kindly–about my love of traumatic and tear-jerking media.)

I’ve listed a few of my favorite sadness-companion books below, and I’d love to hear about your own favorites in the comments.


9780307476074Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

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This is the newest addition to my list of go-to’s, but it’s a good one. Strayed’s blockbuster memoir documents the aftermath of her mother’s death–a painful divorce, casual heroin use, and a terrible dead-end feeling–and how, with nothing more to lose, she decided to spend a summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being broke and brutally unprepared.

The result is a memoir that pushes the very limits of the form and is also tremendously inspiring–without, exactly, feeling inspirational. I devoured this book and highly, highly recommend it for anyone who has lost something–which is to say, everyone.

153008Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

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Also fairly new to its permanent home on my nightstand is this spectacular high fantasy novel, about an alternate version of medieval Europe where gods still make their presence known. Kushiel’s Dart manages to be both hardcore escapism and also a remarkable commentary on our own world. In the nation of Terre d’Ange, where most of the story takes place, love is a central religious precept, making sex a spiritual act, and rape a crime of heresy as well as violence. It’s deeply erotic but also deeply emotional, and the action and world-building are to die for.

The whole series is incredible (I’m currently halfway through the first book in a second, linked trilogy), and I can’t recommend it more highly to fantasy lovers who are sick of the endless iterations of Tolkien-lite.

9780385720953The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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It’s hard to imagine myself loving any book as much as I love The Blind Assassin. It’s a sprawling, messy family epic set in early-20th century Canada, told in conjunction with a novel-within-a-novel that’s part sci-fi, part modernist tragedy. The Blind Assassin‘s protagonist, Iris, is vain, proud, and a bit foolish, and at first it seems like the novel will never get where it’s going, but when it does, the effect is something akin to a refreshing plunge into deep, cold water.

I re-read this book at least once every couple of years, and every time I do, I find something new to love. While I wouldn’t characterize it as a comforting story, it is comforting for me personally, because I’m reminded of the person I was all the times I read it before.

77262Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

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I distinctly remember “stealing” this book from my mother’s shelf when I was 11 or 12 years old; it was probably the first adult literary novel I ever read, so its emotional power felt especially fresh to me. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny Southwestern hometown to help support her aging father. It touches on all sorts of topics, from Kingsolver’s characteristic environmentalism to her equally characteristic explorations of motherhood.

Over ten years after I first read it, its cathartic highs and lows (and a lovely, hopeful ending) still make it one of the first books I reach for when I need to revisit a familiar and comforting world.


Do you tend towards catharsis or comfort reads when times are tough? Do you have any stories of times books helped you through a difficult situation? If you’re game to share, I’d love to read your thoughts below.