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18 June 2012 @ 10:16 pm
#31, #32  
The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood

I assumed my first reading experience of Margaret Atwood post the discovery that she is a leading light in feminism (I KNOW, KMS) would be an interesting experience - and I was right. It was also, in view of that knowledge, quite a disturbing book due to the entrenched misogyny.

It tells the story of Marilyn, who becomes engaged to Peter, a dude she's known for four months. (FOUR MONTHS!) Despite this, she starts having the world's most lackadaisical affair with Duncan, an insane scholar she meets in a laundromat. Trust Atwood to make a laundromat seem as rife with meaning and purpose as the Sistine Chapel. There's a side story about her flatmate Ainsley, who decides that to solidify her femininity she must become pregnant and lures in a mutual male friend for the purpose.

I must say I found Ainsley the most disturbing character I've read for a while – and I hope I was meant to. The deception of Len, while masterful, was also despicable, and I don't give her any feminist woman-points for it. Particularly when it was juxtaposed with the way she seduced him, which was to pretend to be younger and dumber than she was - ie a schoolgirl. Len is the creepiest of creeps but I don't hold with tricking people into parenthood under any circumstances. Then there's the part when she decides that after all the child needs a father figure because otherwise, DUM DUM DUM, he might become a ... HOMOSEXUAL. LIKE OMG WTF. I could only read her as a terrible, terrible stereotype because to do anything else would have hurt me.

I will admit to wishing Marilyn would end up with Duncan properly, but I chose to believe Atwood also wanted me to wish that in her attempt to overturn that particular trope. I might have had more faith in the 'marriage isn't everything, now I will find myself instead' party line (one that I personally espouse, too) if Marilyn didn't end up right where she started, and where in fact Atwood in the introduction says she started: choosing between a dead end job and the escape via marriage.

Atwood is just so enjoyable to read that even though I hated most of the characters and storylines (PETER CAN JUST GO DIAF), I had a good time with this.

The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

I wasn't four pages into this before I renamed it in my head as 'The Worst Published Fanfic Ever.' Granted, I haven't yet read Fifty Shades of Grey, so that is liable to change.

Unlike apparently most of the one and two star reviewers on goodreads, I have more than a passing familiarity of the story of the Iliad (and the Odyssey) - thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff rather than Homer. Even if canon didn't point towards Achilles and Patroclus being lovers, I would have shipped them that way regardless. Therefore I didn't consider it a huge or scandalous leap for her to have made.

Miller, who's a classics scholar, clearly believes Achilles/Patroclus is the ultimate canon OTP. It's a shame, because that leads her to also believe she doesn't have to prove anything with her book. She could have been writing a kiddie version of the very true story of the Iliad from the way she assumes the facts speak for themselves and all she has to do is record them. Unfortunately, while I learned more of the minutiae of Achilles' life - more than I or the story needed, in fact - I did not for one second learn why she thought she sold me on the romance. It's so much taken as a given that even she doesn't question it, and she's the goddamn storyteller here. Not Homer, whatever his supposed intentions towards the smexing were. GIVE ME SOMETHING OTHER THAN THE SMELL OF ACHILLES' FEET FOR REAL BRO.

I'm not even kidding: there are several references (too depressing to actually count) to his pink feet and how awesome they smell. Bear in mind this is MILLENIA before the invention of deodorant and electrical showers. I'm not buying it. And the writing is crammed with real clankers; the nectar-scented feet are just the start.

"Patroclus," he said. He was always better with words than I.

Sure! Why not! Except ... this is the ONLY WORD HE SAID. Which is YOUR NAME, Patroclus. Basic identity skills do not equal eloquence! No really!

Despite the prophecy and oh noes! forbidden love! angle she chose to take, there is absolutely no sense of threat in this book, no sense of gathering menace. The plot lurches and spurts along, topping even The Night Circus in its frantic scrabblings. I read somewhere that she does women badly, but it's not true. Yes, her women - three, two of whom get speaking parts - are bad, but they're not actively worse than the men. Miller just can't write. The prophecy states that Hector will die before Achilles; the conclusion reached is that Achilles must not kill Hector. Huh? What about the THOUSAND SHIPS full of other fighting dudes, any of whom could kill Hector? Sense: not made.

In the end, the idea of Achilles, greatest warrior of all time, and his sword-mate Patroclus being touchy-feely liberals who save women by pretending to the crowd that they'll rape them and then not actually raping them does not compute. Thetis should have been the most interesting character in a host of interesting characters, but nope, all we get is tired rape apologism for poor, kind Peleus who's just so NICE, don't you know, he DESERVED to repeatedly RAPE HIS WIFE. That bitch who only wanted to save her son.
(Deleted comment)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: kamart sutrascoradh on June 18th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
I have read the Handmaid's Tale, of which that YA novel Wither seems to be direct rip-off (?). Also ... Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Lady Oracle, half of Cat's Eye and the Robber Bride, which makes my top ten of faves ever. (I really must sit down and write that out one day.) I'm a legit fan, if a legit fan is entitled to NOT KNOW of Atwood's feminist cred. *facepalm*

I have slightly veered away from her poetry, just because I feel that poetry and prose are such completely different things and what I like in one I hate in the other. I prefer my poetry much more lyrical, even overwrought, than Atwood's prose. Still, I'll keep a lookout since you say so! :D
a kid on the lookout for transcendenceextemporally on June 18th, 2012 09:23 pm (UTC)
It's been ages since I read Margaret Atwood - not since I became super into feminism and also realised that she was writing from a feminist standpoint (I know, wtf. past me was super dense). I should start again! Have you read any of her other novels?
a kid on the lookout for transcendenceextemporally on June 18th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
Also I have a hilarious Atwood anecdote relating to The Edible Woman actually, but which I will not type out here because it is honestly super teenie and embarrassing /o\
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: girl with earringscoradh on June 18th, 2012 09:28 pm (UTC)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: kitty teascoradh on June 18th, 2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
copypasta from above: The Handmaid's Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Lady Oracle, half of Cat's Eye and the Robber Bride. I really haven't wanted to venture into her 'spectulative fiction', mainly because she insists on it being called that and not, eg, sci-fi, but also because I find the intersection of genres uncomfortable in general?

I mean, yeah, there's a big DUH with the feminist thing, but in fairness I read all those before I started these reviews (... in 2008, god). I've become much more attuned to feminism fail since then - to the point where I can hardly enjoy anything, actually - and it probably would have become extremely obvious had I not read most of her work already.

Start with the Robber Bride! She kills the evil seductress trope by making evil seductress see the error of her friends' ways with relation to the men in their life. AWESOME.
catnip jonesrumpleghost on June 18th, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
Huh, it's interesting that the Achilles/Patroclus romance didn't work for you! I found it gorgeous - very non-explicit, but that kind of slow gradual build was great, and I liked that it kind of got to one of the things that fascinates me about Achilles/Patroclus, that tired shitty inevitability of everything, the way Patroclus begrudges Achilles so much at the beginning and doesn't really know why. (I really liked Thetis in that way, too: I don't think she was a bitch at all, it's just the terrible nature of a god.)

Also, I think some of the feet stuff - lol - was a callback to the actual Iliad. Achilles is famous for them, and all, you barely get two lines of Achilles in the Iliad without his feet, it's one of his most famous epithets.
catnip jonesrumpleghost on June 18th, 2012 10:22 pm (UTC)
(Also, yeah, the Briseis stuff was enjoyable escapism, the idea that Achilles & Patroclus would be so attuned to and horrified by the idea of rape. But having said that, I did enjoy it, and I think Miller did it because she wanted more girls with agency and personality in her story, which I admire? Apparently her next book is going to be about Medea, so I definitely wouldn't write her off as misogynistic.)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: astronaut's kissscoradh on June 18th, 2012 10:27 pm (UTC)
Again, I think Briseis was well-done for what she was and I actually applaud Miller for thinking, "No, I will not necessarily write Achilles and Patroclus as natural-born rapists just because it seemed to be the default state." She had a fair bit of agency, she pursued a guy she liked on her own terms and had a career of her own. It comes down to whether you liked the writing; I didn't, you did, so it determines whether or not you can enjoy it. It doesn't mean I can't see merit in what she did! If nothing else it's a gay romance novel that has gained a serious accolade and is treated as mainstream. If for no other reason that's a success story.

Edited at 2012-06-18 10:28 pm (UTC)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: birds on sticksscoradh on June 18th, 2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, it works for me! It's just - this is why I called it fanfic; it seems to work on the assumption that the relationship is already there and she's just writing curtainfic of it. Now, I haven't read the actual Iliad so I don't know if it is or isn't, but either way I still think she needed to work harder for it. Like the way there was no conflict between whether or not one of them liked the other ~that way~, no concept of sex without emotion, that kinda thing.

I liked Thetis for being that, yeah, a non-human being with other ideals and ideas. I just wished she got more execution.

HAHA FAIR ENOUGH. I just don't find feet that erotically fascinating, so it wasn't drawing me in the way other parts of the anatomy would!
catnip jonesrumpleghost on June 18th, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
Hmm, okay, but I think those ideas are very modern? Like, it was already a super modern interpretation of the story, but putting that kind of confusion would have seemed weird. Honestly the bigger problem for them, that I thought read true, is the fact that they don't give it up once they outgrow it; it was a natural(ish - I'm simplifying sexuality in antiquity a LOT here) thing for young boys to do, but not at all for men to continue, so. The idea of "omg but does he like me back" wouldn't really have worked beyond what she already stretched it to. (Also, jsyk, the Iliad doesn't have them together... probably? It's not explicit again, at any rate - most of our knowledge of antiquity thinking they were together comes from people centuries later - Aeschylus and Plato thought so, but not Xenophon.)

I mean, now I'm confused, because you sound so vehement in your review like it's the worst thing you've read in a while, but ahaha, okay. I wouldn't describe it as a gay romance novel, but I guess that's your call? w/e, I will go down to my grave sobbing about how great Achilles is, so.
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: Timepunching: camera gunscoradh on June 18th, 2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
Nope, nope, I totes buy your version. (I pretty much bow down to your knowledge on this subject - you are SO LUCKY you get to study stuff like this ;___;) Could not that have been a source of tension, though? The fact that they did keep doing it without either of them really questioning it; would the question have not come up? Maybe not 'do you like me check yes or no,' but something suitably contemporary.

The effect of shouting into the void! No point shouting nice stuff (imo). But if anyone wants to debate with me about something I dislike, I become a lot less ... vehement and crazed, because now I'm talking to an actual person and so *I* feel less insane. Whether or not the book was good or I liked it are less relevant than I GET TO TALK TO SOMEONE ABOUT IT WHEEEEE!

... yeah.

Basically it made me want to write this story, or get someone whose writing I like to write this story (you!), because I love this STORY.
catnip jones: [rb] turn up the lights in here babyrumpleghost on June 19th, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)
I think probably it would have been more of a source of tension if they hadn't... all been about to die. As it was the occasional snide comments and things worked for me, with the idea that their relationship wasn't something that needed fighting for, their lives were? Idk.

Aha, right, see, I don't want it to seem as if I am defending it as a GREAT WORK OF LITERATURE, for me it was a super super indulgent read, but I definitely don't think it's the worst fanfiction ever published. (Surely Cassie Clare wins that!)

They are a pretty amazing story. ♥
down the hills and round the bendsnorton_gale on June 19th, 2012 02:30 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed The Song of Achilles, but in a light, beach-reading kind of way. The way the writer treated Briseis reminded me of how some Harry/Draco writers have addressed "the Ginny problem" (how to stick with most canon facts yet get Ginny conveniently out of the way so Harry can be with Draco). I am not familiar with the details of the original story, but making Briseis "just good friends" with Achilles and Patroclus did seem rather unbelievable to me.

Lady Oracle is my favorite Margaret Atwood novel. I liked The Edible Woman but wouldn't call it a classic.
shadowclubshadowclub on June 20th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)
Multiple mentions of foot smells? Hahaha, I much enjoyed your review of these books!
Sereniaserenia on June 20th, 2012 09:32 am (UTC)
"Patroclus," he said. He was always better with words than I.

- That made me crack up laughing. I've been neglecting my LJ, and hence your reviews, which I love to read.

I'm getting sick of at all this 'professional fanfic'. I suppose it started before twilight, but that's when it seemed to get popular. Maybe I'm just jealous that I didn't think to get my crappy fics published or something. :p