2016 Reviews: Books #7-#8

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

Atwood Orxy

“Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood (Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literacy Award, and the 2004 Orange Prize) – I admit it. I’ve known about Margaret Atwood for years (probably decades!) and I’d never read anything of hers until last year (even though I’ve had one of her multi-award-winning books, “The Blind Assassin,” sitting on my bookshelf for at least two years). Instead of starting with “The Blind Assassin” though, sometime last year I finally dove into “Wilderness Tips,” her 1991 collection of short stories that had also been gathering dust on my bookshelf. By the end of the second story, “Hairball” – a wonderfully odd tale about a woman who lovingly keeps the red-haired, bone-encrusted, benign tumor that was removed from her in a jar of formaldehyde on her fireplace mantle, I realized what an idiot I’d been for waiting so long to discover for myself why Atwood had garnered such rave reviews over her lengthy writing career. To witness the range of her writing abilities, I recently picked up a copy of “Oryx and Crake.” Regardless if you call it science fiction, speculative fiction, a dystopia, or whatever other term you like, the events that transpire in this story are not difficult for me to imagine. In fact, with the way the world is going these days (e.g., all the talk about building “walls” to separate populations, genetically modifying organisms), it seems frighteningly realistic. Snowman (aka Jimmy), the main character, is a gloriously flawed individual (who knows it). A self-professed “word person” (just like me) in a world that appears to place greater value on “number people,” I loved passages like this: “The more obsolete a book was, the more eagerly Jimmy would add it to his inner collection. He complied lists of old words too – words of a precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a meaningful application in today’s world…wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant. He’d developed a strangely tender feeling towards such words, as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them.” If your interest has been piqued, you can read an excerpt of the first section of “Oryx and Crake” here (simply click on the “Read An Excerpt” button that’s displayed below the book cover). Granted, the subject matter is in a genre that I don’t often read, but as it’s Book 1 of 3 in the MaddAddam Trilogy Series (and I’m wondering what happens next), I imagine that I’ll be reading the other two someday soon. Who knows, I might even finally get around to reading “The Blind Assassin.” (4½ stars)

Gordimer Beethoven

“Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black” by Nadine Gordimer (Winner of The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991) – This was another one of the short story books I recently found when I helped set up a book sale at our local library. Gordimer, like Atwood, was a prolific writer during her lifetime (she died in 2014), yet once again I have to confess that this is the first book of hers I’ve read. The range of topics covered in this book is immense. From the lowly tapeworm in “Tape Measure” (which was actually one of my favorites, perhaps because it was told in the first-person point of view of the tapeworm) to “Allesverloren” (a Dutch word that means “all is lost” and that relates to a grief-stricken widow who is trying to make sense of a piece of her husband’s past), many of the stories hit the mark for me as a reader, but some fell short or went a little too far over my head. As a writer, I was quite intrigued with “Alternative Endings” (“The First Sense,” “The Second Sense,” and “The Third Sense”). Gordimer, in an attempt to show how “the forms of storytelling are arbitrary,” presents the reader with three different story resolutions that are based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition that, “The senses usually reckoned as five – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.” While the three stories themselves didn’t really “grab” me, the technique she used to write and to present them did. If you’d like to sample the book, another one of the short stories, “A Beneficiary,” is available online. (3½ stars)