penelope and bumblebee

Good grammar costs nothing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Penelope's Reading List

You don’t have to be a scholar to enjoy The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s contemporary, feminist retelling of The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ put-upon and misunderstood wife, Penelope.

In The Penelopiad, we read of how Penelope (obviously) bore the brunt of her husband’s absence, spending twenty years in Ithaca, warding off a throng of brutish suitors and her ill-willed mother-in-law. All the while her wayward husband is bedding goddesses and getting fat off of a growing legend and rumours that it is entirely possible he himself has been spreading as rapidly as an ancient STD. (Surely Syphilis was some goddess’ dirty stable boy)

This is an entirely plausible version of Penelope’s life, of her afterlife and of her greatest regret and sadness – the slaying of her twelve favourite maids upon her husband’s return. Atwood’s Penelope is doomed to carry the weight of their deaths on her demure shoulders for eternity – a weight that the slayer has absolved himself of shouldering.

Alwood also delivers a juicy account of Penelope’s acrimonious relationship with her bitchy, war-mongering cousin Helen, whose shallow and spiteful demeanour is dullened little by an event as insignificant as death.

What is most impressive about The Penelopiad is Atwood’s deft handling of the logistics of it all; Penelope is telling her story to a modern audience, and the ease with which Atwood handles details – like the acknowledgement that Penelope’s mythical Hades is little like our own modern, Satan-patrolled hell – is genius.

This is the author at her best: light-hearted yet lightening sharp, academic yet entertaining. If you have ever seen Margaret Atwood speaking in person, or even in a taped interview, you’ll know what I mean. The Penelopiad is Atwood speaking to us – the clever, casual tone; the dry wit and the ability to make us open our eyes to struggles we would prefer not even acknowledge the existence of. This is the fun version of Alias Grace.

That Atwood almost passed on this project (being one of several in The Myths Series including Jeanette Winterson, Alexander McCall Smith, David Grossman and others) is unfortunate, as it ranks as high on the list of required reading re-tellings as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Surely, Penelope would be pleased.

Apologies in advance to all involved in NaBloPoMo (or is it NoGoBloMe?) -
it is only day 3 and i am already behind in my reading. i can't keep up. go on without me; we'll always have october.
(but i'll do my very best, because you all have such smart, funny, amazing things to say, and your blogs are pretty much my mommy crack. i just might not get to comment as much.)


  • At 7:52 PM, Blogger metro mama said…

    Thanks for this Penelope--this one is high on my list. I'm rereading Alias Grace right now for school--for those of you who haven't read it I highly recommend it too!

    I've finally finished Moral Disorder and will write a review for it soon.

  • At 12:07 AM, Blogger jen said…

    Thank you for this - i've needed a good recommendation and you've made me hungry for this one.

  • At 11:13 AM, Blogger sunshine scribe said…

    Love Atwood!

    And yes to the NaGoBloMe thing. I missed the last two weeks of posts to come back and find out everyone is posting DAILY. Shit.

  • At 5:27 PM, Blogger ewe are here said…

    I have to say I'm impressed. An interesting review on what looks to be a really good read. Sadly, my recent reading has been a bit on the 'light' side due to the toddler distraction factor. ;-)

  • At 6:27 PM, Blogger Lisa b said…

    I think you might have to be a scholar to write a review like this but I will (should) take time to finally read this work.
    I've loved Atwood since Jr high and should probably go back and read those works I thought I understood.
    Did you read the obnoxious party section in the globe today? - there is a comment about Nigella Lawson's interview of a couple of weeks ago in which she claims Atwood was mean to her when she had to interview her years ago.

  • At 9:50 PM, Blogger cinnamon gurl said…

    I have no problem believing that Atwood could be mean to Nigella. For one thing, aren't they like polar opposites? Nigella's like all warmth and softness, and Atwood is all ice and sharpness. Any time I've seen Atwood on tape or stage, she was pretty haughty. That's what always made me very grudging about enjoying her work (nevertheless I LOVED The Handmaid's Tale). You might want to check out Al Purdy reading his poem called, "Concerning Ms. Atwood" at here, which I get a kick out of. The story of their first meeting is also funny. He called her an academic.

    And Penelope, it's so sweet that you're trying to support us NoGoBloMeBlaBla-ites... but don't get all stressed about it. After all, it's supposed to be about the blog posting, not the comments, right?

  • At 10:01 PM, Blogger cinnamon gurl said…

    Wow, I just tried to check out that article at the Globe and they make you pay $4.95 to read it. What crap! The old school media need to catch up with the Internet.

  • At 3:12 PM, Blogger penelopeto said…

    I know lots of people who are not huge fans of Peggy, but it rarely has to do with the quality or content of her writing (my m-i-l doesn't like her because she is from Temagami and Atwood protested the clearcut there!). I love the controversy that she stirs up - so unlike most canadian notables!

    I'm off to find a free copy of that globe article - I don't know much about nigella (except her sad past), but maybe it was a question of survival of the feistiest.

  • At 11:41 PM, Blogger nomotherearth said…

    Thanks for reviewing this. I've picked it up and put it down in the store more times than I care to count. After reading this, I just may take it home!

  • At 2:07 PM, Blogger petite gourmand said…

    I still haven't read Alias Grace as it's been collecting dust on my bookshelf for ages.
    I really enjoyed The Robber Bride & A Handmaids Tale.
    I just don't seem to read as much as I used to these days..
    too much time spent blogging, watching t.v. and running around after a toddler..
    The Penelopiad sounds good though.
    might have to add it to my never ending list.

  • At 2:12 PM, Blogger Her Bad Mother said…

    Margaret Atwood is on of the very few Canadian women writers that I really, really like, so I've been dying to get at this one. And now I have even more incentive.

  • At 4:21 PM, Blogger Lisa b said…

    Sorry to send you gals in search of that article
    really it was just a punchline that only a British Food Porn Star could make fun of Margaret Atwood. The original interview with Nigella didn't have much either. It wasn't even a good story about her interviewing Atwood, really just a comment that she was mean to her.

    The globe is evil. I don't even think I can access the online articles without paying and we (the evil banker) has a subscription

  • At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Heather said…

    I love the concept of the story, and Atwood, which means I should swing by the library sometime and pick it up. Thanks for piquing my interest!

  • At 2:10 PM, Blogger Mary-LUE said…

    Yowsa this all sounds good. The party described in the next post and this book and the series it is a part of. Must go and put it on my Books to Read list.

    I see you all the time on the t-dot blogs and probably elsewhere. Clicked over here from Metro Mama.

    Nice to e-meet you through these posts.


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